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Man on the Street

Fashion News
Bill Cunningham, the father of Street Style photography.

He never had an assigned seat at a fashion show, but the front row didn’t have any trouble accommodating him. In fact, he may have been the only person Anna Wintour ever scooched over for. In an industry whose only reason for being, it sometimes seems, is to celebrate What’s Next! What’s New! The Latest Model! The Coolest Designer!, he was eternal, unchanging with his blue French workers’ jacket and ratty bicycle, his raison d’être slung around his neck.

Bill Cunningham, the intrepid photographer for The New York Times—the guy who, let’s face it, pretty much invented street fashion photography—passed away last summer at the age of 87. Until the end you could find him stationed on the sidewalk, gleefully snapping, grinning when he saw someone in the kind of delightful, nutty outfit he adored. “I never go out with a preconceived idea,” he once explained. “I let the street speak to me.”

I had known him since the 1980s, when I was just an ordinary person with funny clothes. I wasn’t famous; I didn’t know anyone famous. I had a low-level job, but I also had an extraordinary black Romeo Gigli coat with a velvet collar that ended in points, like a court jester’s. Bill didn’t care at all about my lack of social status—he loved me for my Gigli. We became friends—or, no, strike that, friendly.

Did Bill have close friends? Was there anyone this pale rider had a drink with, a bite, a movie night? He certainly never sat down at any fashion dinners, though his hosts would have loved to have had him. He famously never even accepted so much as a glass of water. But while the rest of us were gorging and burping, he was noticing things—the way a silver frock gleamed in the sun, the way a swath of fringe danced. “I’m not interested in celebrities, with their free dresses. I’m interested in clothes,” he explained.

Cunningham was born into a large Irish Catholic Boston family. He dropped out of Harvard at 19, served in the Korean War, came to New York, floated around the fashion business and started making hats. (“I could never concentrate on Sunday church services because I’d be concentrating on women’s hats,” he recalled, describing a strict childhood.) I always thought his courtly, pre-Stonewall manners were reminiscent of the 1950s and ‘60s in Manhattan—a Mad Men world incarnate. This extreme modesty did not prevent him from becoming universally recognized: The French government bestowed the Legion d’Honneur on Cunningham in 2008; the next year he was declared a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

One of the last times I talked to him was at the Thom Browne show in New York last winter. It was snowing, there was a frigid queue, and I was in a foul mood. But Bill was cheerful and unruffled (especially for an octogenarian who had arrived by bicycle through the slush!). I knew he had been having some health issues. When I asked him if he would be coming to Europe for the upcoming season he shook his head. Not even Paris? I implored. “Oh, child,” he said, “I am just happy to be here in New York.”

We were happy to have you in New York too, Bill, for so many reasons. You were a citizen of the world, sure, but also our hometown hero. You were indeed that rare bird, unassuming and completely authentic in a business that all too often seems to prize just the opposite. No matter how crowded a fashion show is, no matter how scarce a ticket, there will always be an invisible empty seat in the front row, with your name on it.

“I started photographing people on the street during World War II. I used a little box Brownie. Nothing too expensive,” he said. By the time I knew him he had graduated to a low-end Nikon. It was rumored that in the early days, Bill tore up his paychecks. “Money’s the cheapest thing,” he explained. “Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.” (I asked him once where he stayed in Paris during Fashion Week, and he shook his head and laughed, and said something like, “Child, you don’t want to know.”)

 

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