Fashion Studies, History

Remembering a Legend: Bill Cunningham

I met Bill Cunningham on the day I like to remember as the first day of my life as an art historian. After months of hard work trying to show the art-history world that I, an economist, with little formal training in the history of art, could be part of it, this was my first day as a researcher at The Met. So, in a typical winter day in New York—sunny but freezing—I walked out of my home, Chanel boots on my feet, books in my bag, and my favourite coat with a floral pattern, trying not to let the nerves consume me and hoping to survive my first day as a staff member at the museum I so much adore. 

It turned out that this was also the day that my department opened its most important exhibitions this year: The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor, and Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay. Still new to the world of drawings and prints, and determined to absorb as much information as I could during my time at The Met, I spent quite a long while trying to see everything before heading to the reception for a glass of wine. And while I was looking at some of Buchinger’s drawings with floral designs, a wonderful man, with the widest smile on his face, approached me commenting how beautifully the pattern on my coat combined with the patterns in the drawings I had spent so long carefully studying. It was Bill.

Bill Cunningham young

In this one encounter, and a relatively short conversation on flowers, prints (both on paper and textiles) and staying warm and happy in the freezing New York winter, I could learn that Bill Cunningham, despite being a true legend, was also one of the nicest, humblest people this world could have ever seen. And that is one of the reasons why I admire him so much; because there is nothing we can’t achieve with kindness, and the world will always thank us for increasing its dose of good vibes.

But this is certainly not the only reason to admire him.

Starting in the 1970s, Bill Cunningham walked the streets of New York, shooting fashion photos “On the streets” for his column on The New York Times. So, in a way, he was the pioneer of the street-style photography that has invaded the contemporary fashion field, with all the style blogs and social networks that have helped it grow. He believed that fashion, far beyond what’s presented in the runways, is what occurs in the streets; he truly believed that every New Yorker was worth of being photographed, that you don’t need to be a famous “fashion person” to have style or to dress well.

Bill Cunningham bicycle photography

Some of his favourite spots in New York were Fifth Avenue and The Met; he would often attend events and probably never miss fashion week. He would be everywhere, riding his bike, wearing his smile and matching blue jacket, and ready to shoot. He was an eternal presence in the city and seeing him so enthusiastically doing what he loved was always an inspiring surprise.

He spent several decades doing his job and, until the last moment, he did it with passion and with a huge, honest smile on his lips. He was kind and loving, and always willing to engage cheerfully in a conversation related to the fashion that he so much adored. And this is something that I would like to take away from him and, if possible, adopt it in my own life as a sort of hommage to this wonderful man. Because the love he had for his career, and the drive to do what he loved, always photographing fashion on the streets, rain or shine, is something I would like to embody with mine.

So thank you, Bill, for showing up on my first day as an art historian. Thank you for reminding me of my love of fashion, flowers and art. Thank you for being an inspiration and a role model for me to do what I love and to, always and forever, do it with passion.

Bill Cunningham on 57th Street in NYC, 14 June 2011

**Read more about Bill Cunningham on The New York Times

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