Remembering Bill Cunningham as the Godfather of Street-Style Photography

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Bill Cunningham

The late lensman, who didn't care about celebrity for celebrity's sake, was a familiar, friendly face who rode on his bike from venue to venue during fashion weeks, using his camera like a note pad to capture every style star that caught his eye.

Decades before Instagram and iPhones, Bill Cunningham was the godfather of street-style photography.

The longtime fashion photographer for The New York Times who died Saturday at the age of 87 didn’t care about celebrity for celebrity’s sake. The latest movie and TV stars in the front row at fashion shows held no interest to him. He just cared about style, and anyone could have it.

Even when he became a celebrity himself, after the release of Richard Press’ 2010 documentary film Bill Cunningham New York, he dodged the spotlight, covering his eyes when people asked to take photos or selfies.

At fashion weeks around the world, I will always remember Cunningham as a familiar, friendly face, riding his bike to far flung runway venues in New York and Paris, as editors came and went in chauffeured cars.

He used his camera like a note pad, keeping careful tabs on every genus, phylum and species of stylish bird, whether it was the nonagenarian style star Iris Apfel, or the Japanese hipster outside an early morning Junya Watanabe show.

And he was the most gentle man; he called everyone "child," and was more than happy to give up his front-row seat.

"It was always a great thrill to wake up on a Sunday morning and see your picture in his column," Fern Mallis told The Hollywood Reporter. Mallis was the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America from 1991 to 2001, and created 7th on Sixth productions, or New York Fashion Week as it is known today.  

I recognized myself in his column a few years back, but barely. He snapped me leaned over, changing from heels into flip-flops on the sidewalk outside a New York Fashion Week show. Gulp. It was just the kind of sociological fashion phenomenon he loved.

"I feel like I’ve known him my entire career," said Mallis, who interviewed him at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in 2014, as part of her Fashion Icons series.

Cunningham had an unbelievable memory for fashion history, from his decades working at The New York Times, and before that, designing women’s hats and working in retail at a dress shop called Chez Ninon in the early 1960s.

"I asked him if it was true that he dyed a red Balenciaga suit that Jackie Kennedy had with her in Dallas black and that's what she wore to the most famous and photographed funeral in history," Mallis remembered. "And he said, 'I think it was Dior, Jackie was thrifty and there was no time for her to get a black suit.'" (Cunningham dyed the suit black overnight for Jackie to wear to John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963.)

"He was the best and they'll never be another like him," Mallis said.

"My first memory of Bill was many, many years ago during New York Fashion Week one February, when the shows were still at Bryant Park," said Alina Cho, editor at large at Ballantine Bantam Dell and host of The Atelier With Alina Cho at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who was photographed dozens of times by Cunningham. "I didn't yet know him and he certainly didn't know me, but he did notice that I was inappropriately dressed for the blizzard-like conditions and, so, he just quietly walked over and put his big blue parka over my shoulders and said something to the effect of, 'Child, wear this — you're cold.' I'll never forget it.

"I never was able to call him Bill, though. It was always Mr. Cunningham," said Cho.  

He was also a superb journalist, and an ascetic in the over-the-top fashion world, recognizable for his simple uniform of a blue workman's jacket and khaki pants.

Marylou Luther, who was fashion editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1969 to 1986, hired Cunningham to shoot the runway shows for her in Paris in the 1970s and '80s, and tapped him to write a weekly column for the newspaper.

"He was famous for not accepting lunch or dinner dates or even water at evening events," Luther said. "Bill was so frugal that when we were in Paris he found a hotel that was $2 a night — no toilet in the room, no bath or shower. When he would come to my hotel to pick me up so we could go together to file our coverage, I would always tell him that I wasn't quite ready and that if he would like to use my bathroom to take a shower, please do. He did. And he always left the bathroom cleaner than he found it. I loved, admired, revered him — both for his work and his life."

Cunningham's legacy and work ethic continue to reverberate among internet-savvy street-style photographers of today, including Garance Dore. "Some legends walk by you and you hardly notice them because that’s exactly what they want," the street-style photographer and blogger posted Saturday to her Instagram. "Bill Cunningham was like this, and all his life he was able to keep that fire and the perfect distance from his subject, distance that allowed him to do the work that he did. … He is a role model for many photographers, and definitely for me."

June 26, 12:30 p.m. PT: Updated with quote from Marylou Luther and corrected release date for Bill Cunningham New York documentary.