We live in the age of street style, where the fashion parade on the sidewalk is just as well documented as the one on the runway. But it wasn’t always thus.
Bill Cunningham, who died on June 25th after suffering a stroke, was the first and the greatest street style photographer, and all who came after him owe him a debt.
It was Cunningham, a former hat designer from Boston, who made an art form out of snapping the most creatively styled clothes he saw on the streets of New York City and beyond.
At fashion weeks both there and in Paris, he was a familiar figure, often with his camera trained on the unexpected detail of an outfit, seeing patterns and trends where others missed them – be it the back of a jewelled heel or the unusual pocket on a coat.
He refused to slow down as he aged. He was fixture on the Manhattan social scene, and often cycled to as many as three events in one night to document what was worn there - although no party animal himself. With his universally acknowledged grace and charm, he endeared himself to the city’s power brokers and fashion legends but he was equally interested in unknowns, as long as they showed style and flair.
In a world that’s so often overrun by wannabes, Cunningham was the opposite. He didn’t care much for celebrity, indeed he resolutely ignored anyone who seemed desperate to be looked at. And since Richard Press’s wonderful 2010 doco, Bill Cunningham New York, made him a reluctant star himself, he was even less keen on the idea of fame.
His early millinery career explains his fascination with hats – some of his most glorious pictures featured style setters in headwear. As a journalist, Cunningham wrote for Women’s Wear Daily in the ’60s, and he took his first pictures for the New York Times in 1978, beginning a relationship that lasted almost 40 years. There, his “On The Street” column was loved by millions.
In his obituary, The New York Times notes: “Mr. Cunningham was such a singular presence in the city that, in 2009, he was designated a living landmark. And he was an easy one to spot, riding his bicycle through Midtown, where he did most of his field work: his bony-thin frame draped in his utilitarian blue French worker’s jacket, khaki pants and black sneakers (he himself was no one’s idea of a fashion plate), with his 35-millimeter camera slung around his neck, ever at the ready for the next fashion statement to come around the corner.”
The fashion world remembers brilliant Bill: