Bill Cunningham, the renowned chronicler of fashion, once wrote of himself, “I just loved to see wonderfully dressed women…That’s all there is to it.”
That fascination abided over a long lifetime as he roamed the streets of New York on bicycle, stopping to snap candid photos of the city’s most fashionably dressed. At night he kept at it, capturing the fashion choices of New York’s elite at glittering events. His astonishing career comes into focus in the Oscar-contending documentary The Times of Bill Cunningham, directed by Mark Bozek.
“He documented everything,” Bozek tells Deadline. “He never left his place without a camera since 1966, when he covered Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at The Plaza.”
Cunningham was deeply self-effacing. Despite himself, he became a kind of New York institution, most notably through his work for the New York Times, where he was employed from 1978 until his death in 2016. He published mosaics of snapshots in his weekly columns “On the Street” and “Evening Hours,” required reading for fashion insiders and anyone interested in the cultural life of the city.
Curiously, “he didn’t think of himself as a photographer,” Bozek states. Rather, he considered himself a fashion historian—and the director says in that respect Cunningham was without peer.
“He was a savant. There’s nobody that has come close to his fashion historical knowledge. Not dead, not alive, nobody that I’ve come across,” Bozek say. “His knowledge is what I think people respected about him so much.”
The documentary traces Cunningham’s route through New York, beginning as a fresh-faced 19-year-old from Boston. After working in advertising at Bonwit Teller, he began making hats for socialites and movie stars, including Marilyn Monroe and Ginger Rogers. Later he joined Chez Ninon, an exclusive boutique that catered to grande dames and monied belles like Jacqueline Bouvier, the future first lady.
“The circles that he lived in and played in were some of the most influential people not just in fashion but in society, in the history of New York,” Bozek notes. “The Rockefellers and the Astors, certainly the Kennedys and people like that.”
His real calling would be in journalism, though he considered what he did “fluff” to squeeze in between newspaper ads. Over time, he amassed a mountain of material.
“His archive will easily become the most valuable in the history of New York City,” Bozek declares. “The letters that he saved…just incredible things. When you get inside there you see the history of this city, and in many cases Paris as well, through his lens…and Studio 54 and Diana Vreeland and the ’60s and the craziness of New York City in the ’70s when it was really in bad shape. And it’s just so much there.”
The Times of Bill Cunningham is built around a single interview Bozek did with the fashion journalist back in 1994. Bozek had long pursued him for a profile while working for Fox television news stations, but the publicity-averse Cunningham had always declined. Then one day at QVC, where Bozek had gone to work, he received a call from Cunningham.
“He said, ‘Hey, young fella, I have to accept this award of this CFDA organization, I don’t even want to. I’m not a photographer. It makes me so mad but the New York Times really wants me to do it,’” Bozek recalls. “‘Would you mind coming to my studio and interviewing me for 10 minutes?’”
The chat was supposed to be a brief one for a video piece for the Council of Fashion Designers of America tribute. It ended up going on for four hours.
“At some point, I realized to just shut up and let him talk because he clearly wanted to talk,” Bozek remembers. “Every now and then I’d throw out a word and he would go off.”
The conversation revealed a central paradox about Cunningham. Though his work was devoted to examining fashion, he cared little about what he himself wore. He told Bozek he got most of his wardrobe from thrift shops or from friends who gave him clothes of dead relatives.
“I know I should care more how I look,” he told Bozek apologetically, “but it’s more important I go out and get the right picture. That’s the main thing.”
Cunningham’s modest lifestyle extended to his apartment, a warren at Carnegie Hall that looked more like a storage facility.
“He lived in a humble room the size of a closet with no kitchen, no bathroom,” Bozek points out. “He shared a bathroom with everyone on the 12th floor at Carnegie Hall studios for 45 years, not just for a couple of months. He just lived this incredibly humble life.”
Cunningham’s endearing personality shines through in the interview. He seemed to struggle with intimacy, yet a big heart beat under those second-hand shirts. During the conversation, he broke down several times.
“When he talks about being shy and then he just starts weeping hysterically, that flipped me out,” Bozek admits. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘I got one of the most respected, nicest people on the planet, in this fashion and society world, and he’s crying.’”
After 1994 Bozek packed away the interview tapes and there they sat until 2016. In the interim he had risen to lead the Home Shopping Network, but he had never forgotten his long-ago encounter with Cunningham.
“The day he died, I went in my basement and I retrieved the interview I had done with him 23 years prior,” he remembers. “I played it for a bunch of his friends, ruthlessly protective friends…And they were weeping by the end because many of them had never even heard Bill talk that much, even to them, because he was just a very private guy…They encouraged me to make the film, in a big way.”
The documentary was released last winter, just before Covid-19 shut down theatrical distribution.
“It came out in New York and Chicago and LA and it did really well and I was really proud of that,” Bozek tells Deadline. “And then it was going to open in 70 or 60 theaters on Friday, March the 13th. And that was the week that was, and so it didn’t.”
The film is currently available on iTunes and Amazon and soon will begin streaming exclusively on Live Rocket, a company Bozek owns. He’d like to see Bill Cunningham’s story become a fictional film, and he’s got just the actor in mind for it.
“Hopefully Ed Norton will read the story and will play him in the scripted feature,” he notes. “He’s just wiry like Bill was. He’s always been at the top of the list.”