Bill Cunningham, who passed away in 2016, comes back with the September 3rd release of Bill Cunningham: On the Street: Five Decades of Iconic Photography. Published by Penguin Random House, it is perfectly timed with the start of NYFW.
Last evening at Bergdorf Goodman The New York Times hosted a cocktail party to fete the book launch. The store, located at Bill’s favored perch, the corner of 57th Street and 5th Avenue is known to most of us as “Bill Cunningham Way”.
The cover of the book features Jen Weng’s illustration of Bill on a golden bicycle with his ever present camera around his neck. Copies were stacked on tables; collages of images from the book decorated the walls. An eclectic group of approximately 300 attended; it was a microcosm of Bill’s New York. There were numerous New York Times editors, both past and present, including many who were instrumental in producing this book.
I met Alex Ward, Director, Editorial Book Development at The New York Times. who is soon to retire. When I asked what he is planning to do, Alex said that he was looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren. Tiina Loite, a former photography editor who compiled the photos and wrote the preface, was among the guests.
I asked Tiina if they were considering doing a follow up book, “Evening Hours”, and this was her reply: “Hard to say right now. A book like that is heavily dependent on accurate captions for every single photo. We would first need to straighten out the database issues regarding many of Bill’s photos having somehow gone into the database with no information on them. That could take a while.”
Cathy Horyn who penned the forward, “All About Bill” was another invitee. Cathy worked for The New York Times from 1998 until 2014. In 2015 she was appointed critic-at-large for New York Magazine’s website “The Cut.” I asked her what designer she feels is the most influential these days. Cathy wasted no time with her response: Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga. Cathy also cited Rick Owens and singled out the team of Eckhaus Latta in New York. She also observed that the couture shows are where the focus is now and thought it was brilliant of Ralph Rucci to have shown again at the Couture in Paris.
Tonne Goodman, Vogue’s fashion director was also among the guests I am a huge fan of Tonne’s understated style and she stood out as always, with her authentic, chic simplicity.
The party was held on the north side of the 4th floor. And many guests spilled into Linda’s, a rather tempting place to shop. Linda Fargo, Bergdorf Goodman’s senior vice president and the director of women’s fashion and store presentation did not want to name names but said that she is really feeling strongly for the newer, more under the radar labels at the moment.
Other notable fashion figures who mingled in the crowd were Enid Nemy, the legendary 95 year old former reporter and columnist for The New York Times. Enid looked chic and ageless, in a colorful vintage Geoffrey Beene jacket. I expressed my deep admiration for the late designer and she agreed.
Also, Vanessa Friedman the Chief Fashion Critic and Fashion Director of The New York Times, who wrote the chapter “Those Who Really Caught His Eye” arrived looking chic in vintage Stefano Pilato for Yves Saint Laurent.
Another well-known fashion insider who stopped by was Stefano Tonchi. Tonchi was previously editor of T: The New York Times Styles Magazine and was the editor of W magazine from March 2010 until he was fired in June 2019. Also present was Michele Jasmine, Associate Director of Publicity at Penguin Random House, who published the book.
The party was filled with many of Bill’s frequent On the Street subjects. Among them Marjorie Stern who always stands out with her individual style and statement making accessories.
Not everyone was “Dressed to Kill” but they all “Dressed for Bill” which was the suggested dress code. It was Anna Wintour, who first made the quotation, “We all get dressed for Bill” famous. Ms. Wintour was not only featured in the book, she penned a chapter, “The Attraction Was Mutual”.
But what does it really mean to Dress for Bill? According to John Kurdewan, Bill was attracted to individuals who had their own unique look; one that was not predicated on designer labels. John should know. As a New York Times production artist, Kurdewan worked closely with Bill as his assistant turned right-hand man designing his photo-packed “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” pages in the Sunday Times. In so doing, the pair became not just colleagues, but close friends. John wasn’t there but he shared one of Bill’s quotes with me: “A woman of style is courageous. She doesn’t follow the pack. She knows herself.”
If you look through the 384 page tome, an anthropological look back at 5 decades of style, you get a pretty good idea of the things that caught Bill’s eye: anything and everything! Bill was thoroughly democratic. He celebrated diversity and inclusion and found beauty in the everyday and the extraordinary. And boy, did Bill love hats and shoes!
Included in the book are pictures Bill took of dowagers in their fur coats; UES ladies who lunch in their bright shifts and pumps; downtown club kids in all black streetwear, biker chains and boots; male peacocks; fashion editors attending the shows wearing the latest styles; women with pierced ears and men with pierced noses; and everything in between.
Bill could care less about celebrity. There is an entire chapter devoted to Bill’s photographs of dogs He was the great equalizer; the common denominator who brought us together. Everyone talked to Bill. Who else could get the worlds’ most renowned grouches and sourpusses to smile and mug for a camera?
Bill was the original ‘high-low’ guy. He knew, understood, and appreciated fashion at every level. He also understood the idea of “appropriateness.” Bill took fashion, something that could be viewed as merely frivolous, shallow and superficial. He elevated it, gave it real meaning, and devoted his life to it. There’s a lesson in this. He taught us more than just simply fashion.