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More than Just a Bill: What Bill Cunningham Meant to Me and the Fashion Industry

I was first introduced to Bill Cunningham and his work by my Fashion Marketing professor my first semester of freshman year (Fall 2013). My professor told us that we were required to watch his videos and read his columns in the New York Times, and to be ready to talk about what he reported on. We were never actually quizzed on this information, but it was fun to have something for homework other than a chapter on Maslow’s Hierarchy.

Bill Cunningham first picked up a camera in 1966 and he became a recognized and respected photographer through Details magazine which launched in March of 1982. He was able to flourish throughout his seven years with the magazine and was frequently given over 50 pages to document what he saw that month or season; Details was acquired by Conde Nast in 1989. Since 1978, Cunningham published a weekly column in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, documenting both the City’s daytime street style and philanthropic night life. He continued to photograph for the New York Times until his death last Saturday, June 25th.

“Bill is a true Egalitarian: That doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of the nuances of cultural divisions and hierarchy, he just treats it all the same.”—Harold Koda

Even though he had an amazing eye for color and design, Bill was blind to the people wearing it. He treated the WASPs of the Upper East Side the same way he treated the teenagers of Harlem because he recognized the importance of choosing to be daring. His insistence for unique and innovative thought is a core belief I will always keep with me—“If I am going out, is what I am wearing something Bill would appreciate?”

He was very opinionated, but his opinions lied with if something was both wearable and interesting for the modern woman or man. He always demanded originality, and refused to accept that “imitation is the best form of flattery.” He never compromised his work for his feelings or anyone else’s; and because he kept himself removed from his work, he consistently gave honest and objective reports week after week. His reports needed to be backed up by research, and he knew that giving eyewitness information was the best way to display the fashions and zeitgeist of the time. Bill Cunningham’s unique formula for historical documentation is something that I try to emulate in my own work, and most of today’s fashion bloggers use aspects of his fundamentals for #StreetStyle.

Although Bill never talked about his personal life with his subjects or colleagues, he briefly discussed his devotion to the Church in Bill Cunningham New York. Outside of attending church every Sunday, he lived a very wholesome Christian life that I feel is overlooked by many other self-proclaimed believers. He lived an extremely pious life and only took what he absolutely needed in terms of material goods and basic living expenses. He frequently questioned his notoriety and shut down any praise he received from the fashion industry. Bill’s humility is hard to duplicate, and it’s hard to imagine how he was both so passionate and so apathetic about his life’s work. He was an anchor to the industry, and reminded everyone that fashion is fun, and should never be taken too seriously.

His chosen profession was seemingly pretty basic (take pictures, write copy), but Bill Cunningham did something that no one else could ever do: he found pure joy in everyday life, and insisted we find it too. The best way to honor his legacy is to treat every day like an adventure, and absolutely dress the part.

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