Fashion / Style File

A Legendary New York Figure Dies

The Incredible Life and Times of Bill Cunningham

BY // 06.26.16

He was designated a living landmark in a city that possesses a plethora of them (living and otherwise), and for more than 40 years he and his camera captured everything from fanny packs to Easter bonnets to polka dot vests. He was Bill Cunningham, fashion chronicler extraordinaire. “We all get dressed for Bill,” Anna Wintour once remarked. And she was not indulging in hyperbole.

Cunningham passed away on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 87. If you were fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on what you were wearing at the time) enough to have been photographed by the Boston-born Cunningham, you might have ended up in the pages of The New York Times, his employer of nearly 40 years. His eye was unerring, forever spotting the new, the throwback, the outré, and the sublime, which Times editors assembled in collages that told the sartorial story of a city’s citizens in a marvelous manner.

The high and the low, the elegant and the quirky — especially the quirky — were all his subjects, and he never missed a beat, or a trend, no matter how fleeting it turned out to be.

Cunningham loved offbeat personalities, and actively nurtured them. Iris Apfel credits him with discovering her, and countless New Yorkers — among them secretaries, diplomats, bouncers and students — bloomed in front of his lens. He would simply get on his bicycle, camera slung over his shoulder, and pedal from shoot to shoot, finding the perfect subject every time.

Cunningham, who started out as a designer of women’s hats, developed into a journalist, one with stringent ethical standards. He worked as a freelancer for Women’s Wear Daily — resigning when he feuded with publisher John Fairchild over a column — and was a co-founder of Details magazine. He was forever declining invitations and gifts, and spoke often of the importance of independence. “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid,” he was fond of saying. For years he turned down a staff position at The Times, agreeing to terms only after a 1994 biking accident made health insurance a must-have.

The French government acknowledged his work in 2008 with the Legion of Honor, a documentary on his life and work was released in 2010 (he claimed to have never seen it), and he went through scores of bicycles. He was an original.

Personal note: I had a brush with Cunningham in the mid-90s; I was wearing a seersucker suit and a pair of Bally boots I had found at a thrift store, and he told me he liked the look. I was flattered, and though the photo he took was never published, it mattered not. I was spotted by the master’s eye, and it felt good.

Featured Properties