Laughter and tears flowed in equal measure on Monday afternoon as the fashion industry filled Carnegie Hall to celebrate the life and work of everyone’s favorite — and the original — street-style photographer, Bill Cunningham.
Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Vera Wang, Naomi Campbell and Cynthia Rowley were among those to attend the event, presented by The New York Times. Since 1978 the paper had been running Cunningham’s “On the Street” pictorials, which presented fashion via Cunningham’s highly democratic eye. “Bill always said, ‘I look at the fashion first, then I look at who’s wearing it.’ He honestly didn’t care if they were famous,” remembered photographer Patrick McMullan, who worked alongside Cunningham on red carpets and at parties and fashion shows for almost four decades.
Steven Kolb, president and CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, agreed. “I often sat next to him at fashion shows, and once in Europe, an unnamed celebrity came in; all the press was going crazy, but Bill just sat there,” Kolb recalled. “He turned to me and said, ‘I don’t care about personalities. I care about the clothes.’ And you saw that always in his work.”
The 87-year-old Cunningham passed away on June 25th following a stroke. On the Carnegie Hall stage Monday afternoon, a podium was placed next to a streetlamp bearing the sign installed at 57th Street and 5th Avenue (his favorite corner) in his honor, as well as Cunningham’s bicycle, his signature blue jacket draped over its handlebars. New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. welcomed the audience, noting, “I’ll particularly miss him calling me kid,” as many in the audience laughed, thinking about all the times Cunningham had referred to them in a similar manner. “I will miss him saying, ‘Hello, child,'” Jenna Lyons said before the event.
The most poignant moment came early in the ceremony. “I chose this poem to read because it reminds me of the joy I’d always feel seeing Bill out on his rounds on a magical New York night,” said Anna Wintour, her voice quavering as she read Lord Byron’s, “So We’ll Go No More a Roving.” (You couldn’t not choke up as Wintour spoke the lines, “Though the night was made for loving/And the day returns too soon/Yet we’ll go no more a roving/By the light of the moon.”) While writing in 2002 about his career at the Times, Cunningham called Wintour his muse — in the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York, Wintour returned the compliment, remarking, “Everyone dresses for Bill.”
Speakers were a mix of social and fashion luminaries — in addition to Sulzberger and Wintour, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sandy Weill, Carnegie Hall board president, also spoke — as well as Cunningham’s colleagues at the Times, John Kurdewan and Joanna Nikas, and his niece, Patricia Jarvis Simonson, who told anecdotes of growing up in Boston and enjoying Christmas visits from “Uncle Billy.”
“I like the fact that the speakers were so genuinely his friends, his most intimate associates,” said journalist and former Allure EIC Linda Wells after the event. “He could have had much more dazzling people onstage, but it was such a wonderful mixture of people who really understood his gift.” Wells added that she was forever grateful for how Cunningham took her “under his wing, introducing me to everyone at every party” when she first joined the Times as a reporter in 1985. “He was an extraordinarily generous person, and I loved seeing the world through his eye.”
Following the 90-minute ceremony, everyone spilled onto the sidewalk outside Carnegie Hall, though no one seemed too eager to dash into a cab or a waiting Uber; rather, everyone hugged and shared their stories of Bill. The scene resembled the exit of any high-profile fashion show — and while one person was decidedly absent, he was present in spirit. “Bill Cunningham was a first-rate photographer, but he was a better man,” Sulzberger said. “I’m very happy to call him my friend.”