Bill Cunningham_3877Web
Photo: Sartorialist

I don’t often re-issue old posts, but here’s one I wrote after seeing Bill Cunningham New York the movie. The original street style photographer died in New York yesterday, aged 87:

Here’s a gentleman – and Cunningham is a real gent – who’s been riding up and down the streets of New York for over half a century. On a rickety old bike. Snapping pictures of ordinary folk. Actually, Cunningham is onto his 29th bike, the other 28 have been stolen. It’s the clothes he loves, not the celebrities and their ‘cookie cutter’ sameness. ‘He who seeks beauty shall find it,’ points out the 81-year-old New York Times photographer,  ‘I could never be a paparazzi, to torment people and chase them. I do it discreetly.’

Cunningham lives a very simple life. The original street style photographer doesn’t take favours and is not remotely interested in money. Home is a small apartment in Carnegie Hall (though the documentary deals with the rehousing of tenants from the building): no kitchen and a bathroom down the hall, a very basic camp bed surrounded by rows of filing cabinets containing all his negatives. Bill has modest taste. Eschewing fancy food for a three dollar breakfast at a local cafe saying, ‘ I eat with my eyes,’ and rejecting fancy clothes for a street sweeper’s jacket that’s become a Cunningham trademark.

I found BCNY deeply moving – here’s one of my favourite quotes:

‘The wider world perceives fashion as frivolity that should be done away with. The point is that fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you can do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.’

And, ‘The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been. Always will be.’

This film puts life into perspective and highlights the soulless artifice of phoney/corporate fashion and modern-day celebrity. Bill Cunningham’s discerning eye saw through, and beyond, all that.

Here’s The New York Times obituary.

12 thoughts on “Bill Cunningham: the legend

  1. Thanks so much Alyson for making me aware of this fascinating man. I will definitely be researching his work and his perspective on people. I find (very discreet) people watching so interesting and I agree with his philosophy on fashion as it can be a powerful self-actualisation ‘thing’ .

  2. Quelle triste nouvelle ce matin! His New York Times Friday capsules were the best thing in fashion. This man was both a saint and a genius. He will be sadly missed.

  3. I couldn’t agree more about street fashion being creative and interesting.
    When I walk down Bond Street looking at the window displays , I find myself pitying the people who are seduced into buying some of these haute couture pieces . Money and style seem to be in opposition , give me a wittily put together , classy and discreet outfit over ostentatious ‘glamour’ any day .
    I think some New Yorkers were forever hoping to be spied by Bill Cunningham so they will miss him.
    I shall try to find the movie to learn more.

  4. Bill Cunningham — ‘Fashion is the armor to survive everyday life.’
    Thank you for your article, Alyson. I adore his work and his kindness.

  5. He will be so missed. Have loved his work since I lived in NY in the early 1980s. He had a way of showing you more than the pictures. And was no slouch as a writer and illustrator either.

  6. Bill was one of my favourite parts about reading The New York Times. I loved seeing what caught his eye, and how he noticed trends in colour and shape. He always included a mix of old and young in his photos, and had such a democratic view of fashion. When I lived in New York, I often used to see him on Madison Avenue outside Barneys, doing his thing. He’ll be missed by so many… definitely by me.

  7. The NY Times will no be the he same and you will be missed and remembered. Thank you, Mr Cunningham, for everything..

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