Bill Cunningham New York: Stealing Beauty

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New York City is the ultimate reality show and Bill Cunningham is its effusive, dauntless producer. "The best fashion show is definitely on the street - always has been and always will," says this singular chronicler of all things haute and low.

In Richard Press' poignant documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, the New York Times' roving sartorialist turns the city sidewalks into a quotidian catwalk. The film is a cinematic celebration of a man, a camera, and his trusty Schwinn.

This is a man whose passion is fashion. He seeks an egalitarian mix of street people and swells alike, each achieving instant celebrity in his lens. I have friends who still flaunt the dog-eared, yellowed newspaper column of their own fleeting fame, when they captured his attention years ago. It wasn't even their Warhol-described 15 minutes, but somehow, it's their zenith.

Bill Cunningham New York Trailer from Gavin McWait on Vimeo.

Hungry for your moment?  Here's who to look for...

He's a humble ascetic who eschews food and drink for the sustenance he finds on city streets. "I eat with my eyes," says Cunningham. His uniform can be found on a Parisian street sweeper. If you spot an 80-something, elfin man sporting a utilitarian blue smock, high water pants and sensible shoes, pray that you're wearing something fabulous enough to be worthy.

Fashion is his religion and the street is his place of worship. "I'm not interested in celebrities and their free dresses, I'm interested in clothing." This is the Gospel according to Bill.

What not to wear, dos and don'ts - this is the stuff of voyeurs. Bill is a Nikon-toting, benevolent observer, a keen connoisseur of clothing who is bound only by the imagination of his subjects. Harold Koda, chief Curator at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute describes Bill's devotion to "ordinary people going about their lives, dressed in fascinating ways."


Anna Wintour, the eager focus of any lens, considers it "death" to be ignored by him. "I've said many times that we all get dressed for Bill." Anna's comment and wardrobe speaks to the hopeful prospect of crossing his path every day, sartorially immortalized for all the world to see.

You'll find him, chameleon-like, on random street corners, patiently awaiting man or muse.  Slavish Sunday Styles' readers make it their mission to give cursory glances to the front page and quickly turn to its longtime fashion arbiter, Bill Cunningham. There is no better fashion pulse than his, no greater nod than to be noticed by his finely tuned, artist's eye. "Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life."

Editors credit him for seeing things that they miss on the runway. Bill illustrates that the sidewalk is better fashion fodder than any catwalk.  He captures the projective power of clothing with artistry and humanity.

From uptown chic to downtown dirty, he is prescient about trends in their nascent phase. Bill is the city mirror, educating his eye during Paris' Fashion Week where the film shows this gentle man humbly taking his place amidst the sea of journalists, and he, a giant among them. You want to shout for someone to take notice, be his champion. And then...

"This is the most important person on earth," the minder is told, as Bill is spirited out of the crowd to his coveted place in the front row.

Grace has a way of being found.

bill-cunningham.jpgBill won my heart midway through the film when his sterling ethics were exposed. He sought runway fashion on the street, personally styled by the wearer. These were women who "made it their own" and strutted their street-savvy styling. He paired them with the couture photo in Women's Wear Daily who then re-worked Bill's complimentary captions. Annette De la Renta elegantly cites his absence of cruelty. He embodies the essence of reality television yet he forgets to be mean-spirited. How has this man survived five centuries of the "cat" walk?

Perhaps it can be found in Bill's mantra: "If you don't take money, it can't tell you what to do. That's the key to the whole thing."

If only Wall Street possessed such a moral compass.

This is a film that celebrates an effusive, joyful and myopic visionary who can navigate the Met Gala and Hell's Kitchen with equal ease. In the unscripted rhythm of his daily life the city becomes his vast, willing game board and dwellers his unsuspecting, about-to-be celebrated players.

"He who seeks beauty will find it," said Bill in his acceptance as an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters, bestowed upon him by the French government. His own elegance and simplicity speaks volumes about the daily quest that he sets himself to with a bicycle, a camera and a gilded spirit.

Bill Cunningham New York - the ultimate "Do."

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Cynthia Carr Gardner is a free-lance stylist in New York, Los Angeles and Boston. She began her career at Glamour Magazine as a sportswear editor and arbiter of the famed 'Do's and Don'ts.' Her work spans 33 years incorporating feature films, commercials, and currently, personal stylist for ESPN Monday…

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