Bill Cunningham, the legendary New York Times photographer whose images paved the way for street style photography, has passed away at the age of 87 following a stroke. An iconic figure in the fashion world and the subject of the 2010 documentary, 'Bill Cunningham New York,' no front row was complete without his Nikon camera, blue jacket and charming smile.
Bill was as much a fixture on the streets of New York — where he famously chronicled what women and men were wearing for day and night, by bicycle, for nearly 40 years — as he was on the international fashion week circuit. I first met him as a young student at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where he was photographing the annual gala. I would go on to see him all over New York and later on the ready-to-wear show circuit where he was a constant warm and smiling presence — one who famously called everyone 'child' — in a sea of poker faces.
And though Bill habitually photographed the fashion on the runway, he was most known for the images of the trends he captured off the catwalk. Best of all, he refreshingly shot everyone, Harlem teens and society queens. As he famously said, 'The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been and always will be.'
Long before Scott 'The Sartorialist' Schuman or Tommy Ton turned fashion editors and stylists into Internet stars, it was Cunningham who women dressed for and it was Cunningham's images that turned them into icons. 'Bill photographed me before anyone knew who I was,' Apfel told the New York Times. 'At 94, I've become a cover girl, and he was very largely responsible for my ultimate success.'
Born in Boston in 1929, he went on to earn the Legion d'Honneur from France in 2008 and a massive global following that spanned celebrities, fashion lovers, and the young photographers he inspired. 'He is a role model for many photographers, and definitely for me, though I always knew I could never touch that level of dedication,' Garance Doré wrote in a tribute post on Instagram.
To be photographed by Bill, and better yet, make it onto his New York Times page was the ultimate fashion badge of honour. It certainly was for me when he took my photo in a snowstorm, my red Acné coat worn wide open, and then commented on it in an online video for his print column, which he called 'Unbuttoned at Fashion Week.' His words: 'Their coats are flying open and its 20 degrees [Fahrenheit]! ...This is what's interesting about fashion. That women and men, when they decide that's the look, this breezy nonchalant attitude, the coat flying open — people, there were hundreds of them doing this. Not just a few people. It was amazing.'
I was hardly the only one who felt that way, just scroll through all the Instagram tributes. 'First rule in this thang....when Bill asks for a picture...pose bitch!!!' Rihanna wrote. While Lena Dunham noted, '...he made everyone important stop and adjust.' And Gigi Hadid admitted to being 'starstruck' the first time he took a photo of her on the street. 'I was honored. He's told incredible, iconic, real-life fashion stories with his photos, and his spirit will live forever in the industry.' Practically everyone who worked in fashion or media or lived in New York has a Bill Cunningham story. He was that kind of man.
It's frankly hard to imagine a fashion week without him. May he rest in peace.