William J. “Bill” Cunningham Jr, was the man in blue, known throughout the industry as one of the kindest, well-loved and enigmatic members of the fashion community. The father of ‘street style’, Bill was largely responsible for chronicling the changing dress habits, trends and the societal shift towards individualism over commercialism of New York’s inhabitants. As Anna Wintour famously said “I’ve said it many times, ‘We all get dressed for Bill.'”
During his nearly 40 years working at The Times the legendary photographer snapped away at a variety of subjects and was never one to let a name dictate how he saw someone.
Always humble and never one to make a fuss about anything, in 2008, Mr. Cunningham was bestowed with the Legion of Honour by the French Government for his contribution to the fashion industry. Shortly after that, he was immortalised as a “living landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
The man who famously never owned a television or went to the movies, was made the subject of a 2010 documentary entitled “Bill Cunningham New York” – a film that premiered to rave reviews and cemented Bill as a true visionary – an artist that could see through the exterior to capture the essence of his subjects.
Surrounded by floor to ceiling filing cabinets, Bill slept in a single sized cot in a studio above Carnegie Hall, until 2010. When he was asked why he lived in such a way, he responded: “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”
Mr. Cunningham himself once said: “When I’m photographing, I look for the personal style with which something is worn — sometimes even how an umbrella is carried or how a coat is held closed. At parties, it’s important to be almost invisible, to catch people when they’re oblivious to the camera — to get the intensity of their speech, the gestures of their hands. I’m interested in capturing a moment with animation and spirit.”
Ever-determined to remain the outsider so as to capture the true happenings of the ‘insiders’, Bill famously refused fame and instead preferred to remain as anonymous as possible – an admirable trait for someone as inspirational as he was.
Mr. Cunningham said in an essay he wrote for The Times in 2002:
“Fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they’re horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It’s mirroring exactly our times.”
Bill Cunningham, March 13. 1929 – June 25, 2016.
You can watch the full documentary below: