The Enduring Power of Originality, According to the Life of Bill Cunningham

The street style legend never bowed to trends and here’s why you shouldn’t either.


Ever liked a street style snap on Instagram? Ever pinned a picture of a woman mid-commute to a Paris Fashion Week show on Pinterest? That was, and continues to be, the legacy of legendary street style photographer Bill Cunningham, who passed away on Saturday in his beloved borough of Manhattan aged 87.

In an industry that generates its revenue by creating an endless allure around clothing, the inimitable Bill stood out and not because he wore clothes that made it so. Bill was an anomaly in the fashion industry – he didn’t wear outlandish outfits, he actively shied away from the spotlight and he never, ever wavered when it came to his work. He was such a force in the New York cultural scene, he was named a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy in 2009. During his near 40 year tenure at The New York Times, as well as previous years at magazines like Details, Bill managed to refocus the industry’s eye to the street, believing the real fashion show to be happening everyday on the streets of Manhattan (and often on the corner of 5th and 57th).

Here are some of the greatest lessons we’ve learnt from the life of Bill Cunningham.

He let his love and passion drive his work. Bill was infamous for denying the industry perks, leaving money out of the equation and taking to the streets whenever he felt ‘depressed’. He did the job because he loved it which meant his hunger for the work was boundless. “It’s not work, it’s pleasure,” he maintained. “That’s why I feel so guilty. Everybody else does work — I have too much fun.”

He always stayed true to his own path. While he constantly celebrated the creativity of other people’s clothing, Bill never experimented with his own style. The New Yorker was known for his practical and religious dedication to blue workingman’s jackets and unremarkable chinos. He rode a bicycle, refused chauffeurs, never stayed for the free drinks, and considered himself simply an observer, nothing more. “I’m not interested in celebrities with their free dresses,” he once said. “Look at the clothes, the cut, the silhouette, the colour. It’s the clothes. Not the celebrity and not the spectacle.”

He focused on the work, not the job. As fashion author Michael Gross lovingly points out in his memoriam to Bill, there was no mystique, no pretence, and certainly no fanfare when it came to Bill and his immeasurably influential work. “Bill wasn’t fabulous,” he observes. “Bill didn’t shoot with teams of editors, stylists and models. Bill didn’t shoot advertising. Bill didn’t live large. Bill wasn’t a raging egomaniac. Though he loomed large in fashion, he was a wallflower at the party, a determinedly quiet presence in his remarkable-because-they-were-so-unremarkable blue workingman’s jackets.”

But that was precisely what made him, him. “Bill Cunningham was an original,” Michael continues. “He is also irreplaceable.”

RIP Bill Cunningham, 1929-2016


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