Thursday, 27 October 2011


Madman Films
Now Showing

I'll readily admit I'm not a fan of fashion, and not just because, as a writer, I can barely afford to keep up with my rent let alone the latest sartorial trends. But I can respect the hard work that goes into the creation of fashion (and the even harder work put in by sweatshop slaves to produce it, and at a fraction of the price it sells for), as well as the industries surrounding it.

Even as a non-fan, I enjoyed the 2009 documentary, The September Issue, which followed Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, as she put together the biggest yearly issue of that magazine. In doing so, the filmmakers revealed that not only was Meryl Streep's version of Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) wide of the mark, but that Wintour herself is given far more credit for the look of the fashion bible than she deserves. She may be a great editor but all the style in Vogue belongs to Grace Coddington.

But if you liked The September Issue, then you're almost guaranteed to love Bill Cunningham New York.

Bill Cunningham is not a fashion designer. He is a photographer who has had a life-long love affair with fashion, and for the last 40 years has provided photographs for two weekly columns in The New York Times: Evening Hours, which captures New York's social elite at play, and On The Street, whereby Cunningham randomly shoots the people of New York whom he believes to be expressing a sense of style and individuality. He refuses to dis what anyone wears, choosing instead to celebrate style.

Richard Press's documentary follows the 80-year-old Cunningham as he rides his Schwinn bicycle (his 33rd; all previous 32 having been stolen) through the streets of the Big Apple, documenting fashion where he finds it. The blue dust coat-wearing photographer is recognised by one and all, and has nothing but a good word to say about anyone, nor they about him.

And if there is one thing this charming doco is lacking, it's a real insight into the life of this man of seemingly simple pleasures. Apparently it took Press eight years to convince Cunningham to agree to be a part of the film, which was shot over a two year period and only under Cunningham's stipulations. Not that he's a curmudgeon, he's simply a very private man.

Interviews with colleagues (including Wintour and other NY fashionistas) and friends - his wonderful geriatric neighbours in the Carnegie Hall apartments, which they were in the process of being evicted from during the filming, are a hoot - sheds very little light on Cunningham's life away from the camera.

But a one-on-one interview near film's end, where the subjects of family, religion and sexuality are broached, gives us a glimpse of the man behind the lens. Catholic guilt may have curtailed his pursuit of an openly gay lifestyle, but one also gets the feeling that so consumed is Cunningham with photography and fashion, the idea of love - or even sex - never really occurred to him.

And that adds a tinge of sadness (and humanity) to a film, and man, that is charming and, yes, inspirational. For what could be more inspirational than finding something you love to do, and being paid to do it well into your ninth decade? Like someone who finds a style that suits and adopts it permanently, Bill Cunningham found his passion and stuck with it. Now that's a trend I'd be happy to adopt.


  1. This finally hit Netflix... I'm definitely going to have to check it out.

    If only all of us could find a passion and, to quote from your review, "stick with it".

    Nice site you have here - keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for the comment and the read, Duke, very much appreciated. Hope you enjoy BCNY. He's just such a wonderful character and, as corny as it sounds, inspiring.