The Great Equalizer: My Final Thoughts On Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham

In the days since Bill’s passing, I’ve had some time to think and reflect on the man I knew for over 40 years. While I have already weighed in, as has everyone else, I wanted to add a few more thoughts.

Bill Cunningham was the great equalizer; the common denominator who brought us all together. He could be in a room filled with people, most of whom wouldn’t talk to one another. But everyone talked to Bill. And who else could get the worlds’ most renowned grouches and sourpusses to smile and mug for a camera? He captured and celebrated diversity, and in an industry known for exclusivity, his columns were the epitome of inclusivity. In his eyes and through his lens, everyone (animals, humans of all sizes, all shapes, all classes), was equal and worthy. In half an hour, he could photograph celebrated bold faced names (titans of industry, fashion, art, music, real estate, entertainment, publishing, society) along with virtual unknowns. And it was not necessarily the former who were given the larger picture in his columns. It all depended upon how he saw it. It was all about his eye.

He was the original ‘high low’ guy. He really knew, understood, and appreciated fashion at every level from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low. And while there was no one who appreciated over the top flights of fancy and individual creativity as much as Bill, he was seasoned and wise enough to understand that this is not where it was at; nor was is it relevant for most women’s daily needs. He was always focused on reality. As he once put it: “Of course, there is room for the glorious kaleidoscopic diversity of designer visions shown last week on the runways. But then again, I can’t tell you how many women pulled me aside during Fashion Week and said, ‘Beautiful clothes, Bill, but nothing to wear'”.

Despite an elitist’s eye, he was thoroughly democratic in his fashion point of view. For him, style had nothing whatsoever to do with money or labels. In fact, because he was so pragmatic and thrifty, whenever I told him of something I had was scored at a very low price, he took special delight in that because it was though I had ‘beaten’ the system.

And as for celebrity, well, quite frankly, he could care less. One incident that always sticks out in my mind as the definitive ‘Bill’ moment happened many years ago, during New York Fashion Week. There was a show held at Bryant Park (I can’t remember what designer it was) and throngs of photographers were descending upon someone in the front row. Bill spotted me and asked who it was. I couldn’t see, so I got up and walked over and saw the young woman (she was a B lister who was starring in a TV show at the time and shall remain nameless). When I took my seat, Bill came back and I told him. But he had apparently already gotten a better look and waved his hand, summarily exclaiming, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t have any style!”

While he became a champion of the elite, he himself was a simple, humble man; a champion of the everyman. He got ‘it’. He was prescient, way ahead of his times, and a trailblazer. His love for what he did and his enthusiasm for fashion was infection and contagious. That smile…he lit up whenever something tickled his fancy.

He had a great understanding of the idea of appropriateness. On the Sunday following the 9/11 attacks, he devoted his entire column to the volunteers lined up downtown on West Street, near Ground Zero. He had enormous respect for the past but was not mired in it and was the essence of ‘modern’: a word that is bantered around ad nauseum. He was the consummate gentleman and had the most impeccable manners. He was always thoughtful and courteous and never wanted to intrude or take you out of your way; and he quickly apologized if he thought he was doing so. I was always touched that he took the time to send me handwritten postcards complimenting me on something I had worn, or photographs (some published, some unpublished) with hand written notes scribbled on the side.

In this crazy topsy turvy world of ours, one in which in which you can’t be sure of (or rely on) anything, he was the one constant. He was certainly a constant in my life. Through his pictures, (which he took of me through 4 decades), I can trace the way fashion has evolved, and I can see how my own personal style has evolved. Of course, I can also see how I’ve aged lol.

He was as dependable as the mailman: “come rain, come sleet, come hail, come shine”. In fact, the more rain, the more sleet, the more hail, the more shine, the better it was for him because the extremes in weather made for some marvelous photo ops. We knew we could always count on him to eventually show up in our lives somewhere. He would attend events that were small and obscure, and high profile and fabulously over the top. He put many charitable organizations on the map and turned their fund raising galas into must go- tos. He went wherever there was the promise of a “happening” and conversely, wherever he was, it became a “happening”!

He was omnipresent, all knowing all seeing. I often thought that he had eyes in the back of his head. If there was one spectacularly dressed person somewhere in the room (or within a 100 mile radius), he would undoubtedly find him or her. He had an eagle’s eye and was able to zero in on things that would go completely unnoticed by mere mortals. While he appreciated grand statements, he also appreciated the small gesture. Very often, what caught his eye was simply the way a person tied a bow or the flash of red scarf against an all-black outfit. Or it could be some wonderfully whimsical buttons on a jacket, or just an interesting proportion or silhouette.

He took something that could be viewed as merely frivolous, shallow and superficial, elevated it, and gave it real meaning. And he devoted his life to it. There’s a lesson in this. He taught us more than just simply fashion.

RIP Bill

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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