They Say a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words…

It’s virtually impossible to imagine life in New York without Bill Cunningham who passed away on Saturday. He was a one of a kind, unique, iconic fixture, who had his finger (and his camera) on the pulse of New York. Actually, at 87 years young, he WAS the pulse of New York. And I say young because he had the energy, stamina, curiosity, and unbridled enthusiasm of someone at least 80 years his junior.

Certainly, it’s almost impossible to imagine the corner of 57th and 5th, especially during the holidays, without seeing Bill standing there, taking it all in and reveling in every minute of the joy of the season, and recording it for all the world to see. Jeffrey Banks suggested they erect a statue of him at that spot and I could not agree more. And it’s virtually impossible to think of New York Fashion Week without spotting him seated front row, jumping up to photograph the crowd, and then quickly exiting in order to capture the interestingly dressed attendees on their way out. And then there’s his favorite: the annual FLO Awards Luncheon. It was a sight to behold, to see him, camera in tow, delighting in being surrounded by hundreds of women dressed to the nines with their fantastical hats. His face would literally light up.

I dare say that in a room filled with scores of fabulously bedecked and bejeweled revelers, the party only truly begun when the small man, dressed in a blue Chinese worker’s jacket (or non-descript blue puffer), with a camera around his neck arrived! Mark my words: attendance will drop at many high profile charity events because for many women, the main draw was getting dressed up and perhaps being photographed by Bill. He was a rarity in the fashion business: a major talent, highly influential, widely respected, liked by all, and yet he was always modest, honest, and outspoken. He received many awards and words of praise but was fond of downplaying all of it saying “you just go out and do your job”. He preferred to credit his success to his wonderful “subjects”.

They say you always remember your first time. And I certainly remember the first time Bill Cunningham took my picture. I was a young assistant fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar and was walking into Henri Bendel on West 57th street. A small man in a worker’s jacket pointed his camera at me and I had no idea who he was or why he was photographing me. Shortly thereafter, on Thursday, February 17th, 1972, my picture appeared in WWD. The caption read, “On the Streets of America” and there were images of women in Denver, Miami, Dallas, and New York. I was among 8 women photographed in New York by Bill wearing fur trimmed and fur coats

I especially remember the time he devoted an entire The New York Times on Sunday February 11, 2001, there I was. The column was called, “The Color of Money (In the Bank)” and there were 18 pictures of me, all in color.

He had been taking my picture religiously for quite a while and always stopped to talk. At one point, he called me on the phone and said he had some pictures in front of him and proceeded to ask me specific questions about 18 different ensembles I had worn previously. He was vague about what he was doing with them but about two weeks later, when I opened the Styles section of The New York Times there was 18 color photos of me!

11 years before Fern Mallis interviewed him for her 92 Y Street series (September 2014), he agreed to sit down with me in for what would be a highly personal video streamed interview for our “Masters of Fashion” series: see video interview and summary (he was always very private and was notorious for not granting interviews).He revealed that he designed hats (“they were less costly than clothing to create”) and explained that he worked as a fashion consultant for Chez Ninon in the 50’s, then became a writer for WWD with John Fairchild’s encouragement in the 1960’s, and was the New York and Paris fashion correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He has been a photographer / chronicler for The New York Times – both his ‘Evening Hours’ and ‘On the Street’ columns which are must reads – for the past 40 years. Although he couldn’t remember what triggered his love of fashion, he did recall buying dresses for his mother whose clothes he didn’t like. When talking about Doyle’s recent couture and Textile Auction, he said, “if you’re going to buy clothing and invest money, that’s the place to go. Saks and Bergdorf Bergdorf missed the boat completely … this is what should be filling up a department there”.

And what did he think about the spectacle the runway shows have become? As he puts it: “we should stop going to them and just go to the pre-show collections”. He felt very strongly about designers returning to small presentations. On the subject of newspapers, and especially fashion magazines, he felt the greatest change in recent years is how the “advertising departments are taking over editorial content”. While Bill admitted to reading as many fashion magazines as he can each month, he singled out French Vogue (“dazzling”) under then editor in chief Carine Roitfeld, who he had been photographing for about ten years (“she has her finger on the raw nerve of fashion….just like Anna Wintour did in the late 80’s and 90’s”).

He strongly believed that “fashion is the most personal thing you do …you get up in the morning and you get dressed … no matter what you have on – good or bad – it reflects your feeling about yourself; there’s no two ways about it!” And he chided, “of course, I Iook like hell. I’m just a worker in the factory …but I’m crazy to see it on people like yourself.”

His relationship with the street was a very special one – he admitted to hitting the streets with his camera, as an “Rx” for the blues, and says he “lets the street speak to me” for the ideas that turn up in his ‘On the Street’ column each Sunday. This perfectionist painstakingly works on stories for months, often dropping ideas if they don’t hold up, or redoing them a year later if the trend is still there (“it can’t be faked, it can’t be hype”.) He told me that he showed up at The New York Times, each morning at 7:30 for their oatmeal (“the best in New York”), and praised the company where he had worked for about 30 years (at that time) for their “honesty and integrity”. He certainly seemed like a very content, happy man (“I just enjoy life and enjoy what I do”), and admitted to a very simple life…boasting he doesn’t even own credit cards.

He laughed off a question about retirement, saying he “doesn’t look at what he does as work”, and it’s obvious that he would be doing what he does without the paycheck. What about a ‘successor’? “Who would be crazy enough to stand out in the street for three weeks just to find the perfect woman?”

The three most ‘memorable’ moments of his career? 1 – Dior’s New Look in 1947 “feminine romance” 2 – The “totally pure designs” of Andre Courreges (“something you never saw before…he invented the third sex”) 3 – The birth of French ready to wear.

When our paths first crossed, he would always call me “child” (as he was known to do). I was in my 20’s so that was not a stretch. But he continued to refer to me that way decades later, even though he knew my name. At some point, when I realized he stopped calling me “child”, I laughed to myself, “Boy, I must REALLY be getting old!” Well, he was forever young and there will never be another like him.

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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