I’ll confess it: I love Bill Cunningham, long-time fashion chronicler for the New York Times. I’m quite late as a devotee, having only recently discovered “On the Street”, Cunningham’s weekly Times column, while the odd octogenarian with the yellow teeth, disarming laugh, and heavy New England accent has been riding his Schwinn around New York with his Nikon 35 mm for about 60 years — enough time to have 28 bikes stolen, Cunningham says with a hearty chuckle in Bill Cunningham New York, a Zeitgeist Films biopic screening at several Miami theaters in April.
As the title suggests, the 84-minute film is as much about New York as it is about Bill Cunningham, and how the one has influenced the other through the decades. The city’s role in Cunningham’s life is that of a fecund urban forest where he, like an obsessive lepidopterist, can seek out, study, and in perfect moments capture (with a camera for a net) the rarest of species. These include anyone from Shail Upadhya, a Nepalese former U.N. diplomat who turned his sofa into a suit, to some nameless no one with the cojones to get on the subway draped in flamingo feathers.
Conversely, Cunningham’s impact on New York — at least its fashion — has been immense. Indeed, the film makes a strong case that the city’s bon vivants see Bill Cunningham in the mirror when they get dressed every morning. For his part, Cunningham doesn’t seem to care who you are (even if you’re Marilyn Monroe) if you’re not wearing something “mahvelous”. What he cares about, perhaps more than anyone alive, is clothes — or as he calls them, “armor”.