How does one get an interview with Bill Cunningham? Fern Mallis knows that the answer is not persistence, but simply fate. And, the story of how fate came about involved Cunningham spilling a vodka soda on her at an event and felt so guilty that he happily obliged when she asked him to speak at the 92Y as part of her Fashion Icons series.
Emotional, enthusiastic, honest and real, the conversation not only highlighted moments of his life, but a chance for the audience to hear Mr. Cunningham discuss his career, passions and what made the legend tick.
Complex and inspiring, it was clear that he’s got a witty sense of humor and knows what he likes. Dressed in his signature blue jacket, the ones that street sweepers wear in Paris, he told the audience, “I eat with my eye” and has no interest in covering celebrities. He also said, “when it’s a law, I will wear a helmet,” giving a nod to his carefree ways of navigating the city on his bike.
He grew up in what he called a typical Catholic family and didn’t have a fashion magazine in his house. His first stint on a bike was when he got a job as a paper boy. Later on, in Boston, he worked for Bonwit Teller and went to Harvard for a brief stint until he realized “I don’t belong at this place.”
He moved to New York and continued to work at the retailer where he was working with clients like Jackie Kennedy. He became so close to her that when John F. Kennedy died, she asked him to dye her dress from red to black for the funeral, which he called “very practical” because she had no money.
Prior to his start as a photographer, he cleaned rooms in exchange for rent so he could have space for William J, his millinery business and noted that his family, not approving of fashion would be embarrassed if he used their last name. His shop closed down when he was drafted and served in U.S. army, but upon return, opened it back up.
During this time, he told the audience that he drove a custom-made 1934 Rolls-Royce that he bought for $500 and would take ladies to the Hamptons in it.
His journey also included time at Details where he featured young designers and was the first to cover Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaia, introducing them to Americans. He had so much fun at the magazine that he didn’t want to be paid for his work. Several times he mentioned that he was terrified of taking money from people because they think they own you.
Cunnigham also worked at the Chicago Tribune, Women’s Wear Daily and with the iconic Vogue editor Diana Vreeland at the Met’s Costume Institute’s Gala. Noting that he was a terrible writer and was explicitly told that, but confident when he said, “I write with pictures. I let the street talk to me.” To this day, he owns all of the negatives of the photographs that he takes.
On the industry, he talked about how the fashion world is so cluttered and there’s a show every hour every day during New York Fashion Week. For Cunningham, which designers get it? He felt that Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta were so successful because they saw how their women lived.
A few years ago, after passing on a buyout he was relocated from Carnegie Hall to an apartment on Central Park South with a small fridge, no kitchen storage and boxes of file cabinets that include all of his photos from years of shooting.
When asked about whether he was going to donate his photos to a museum, he stressed that one fear was that others may use photos that aren’t flattering and he would “hate that.”
Looking into the Future
Completely humble and perhaps unaware of the mark he’s made, when Mallis told hime he was considered a legend, he said the doesn’t think of himself that way.”What legacy? That’s bologna! I don’t believe that.”
He also felt that the future is in technology ad the fashion world has to come to grips with that reality. “Dress the inside of your head. High tech electronics is it.”
His Favorite Fashion Show
As the discussion transitioned into Q&A, Mr. Cunningham eagerly took over the conversation and asked, “don’t you want to know the most exciting fashion show I’ve ever seen?” With the audience on the edge of their seats, he proclaimed that it was Versailles 1973 when the Americans beat the French and used black models while introducing ready-to-wear. He recapped the show with great fervor and clarity, recounting the evening from when Liza Minnelli sang and and tearing up when he mentioned former model Bethann Hardison closing the show.
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