Economic Insights

Bill Cunningham or the City as a Catwalk

Famous fashion photographer died on June 26 aged 87.

Beatrice Rangel. 01/07/2016

June 25th 2016 will be remembered as the day New York City lost its most loving troubadour. Like his medieval ancestors Bill Cunningham captured New York City’s elan vitale through images that he shared with its inhabitants and the world. Unlike medieval performers Bill did not travel from city to city or country to country; his photography did! And nobody told the city’s story better than Bill because he discovered at a very early age that New York was much more than a city: it was the world’s catwalk!! To his eyes the city he had chosen to call home was the locus of fashion and style, the meeting place for celebrities and the stage for ordinary citizens whose sense of bravura led them to turn haute couture into street fashion. And he was the ready to create songs for the common men and women.

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Bill Cunningham

Bill was also an innovator and an entrepreneur as he created a fashion reporting niche for the New York Times that did not require the newspaper to pay celebrities for being photographed. He invested in Details the fashion, style, sports and social events magazine that was Annie Flanders brainchild and published by Conde Nast until December 2015. He pioneered vintage dressing when he photographed Editta Sherman, a celebrity photographer better known as the Duchess of Carnegie Hall, in era outfits using the most emblematic buildings in New York as backdrop.

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Bill Cunningham

This idea allowed the fashion industry to recover many valuable creations from the world greatest designers. As he indicated in an interview «We would collect all these wonderful dresses in thrift shops and at street fairs. There is a picture of two 1860 taffeta dresses, pre–Civil War–we paid $20 apiece. No one wanted this stuff. A Courrèges I think was $2. The kids were into mixing up hippie stuff, and I was just crazed for all the high fashion.”

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Editta Sherman

The project encompassed 1,800 locations and 500 outfits. The Fashion Institute of Technology honored the effort with an exhibition dubbed “The Façade Project” which was staged in 1977. The New York Historical Society repackaged the exhibit in 2014 as “Bill Cunningham: Facades”. As all geniuses, Bill cared very little about popularity. His realm was that of every superb story teller: ideas. And his obsessive idea was to be able to capture in an image the soul of New Yorkers and the spirit of their city.

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Bill Cunningham

Paradoxically, the city’s keeper of style and promoter of taste was not a haute couture fan when it came to his outfits. Blue working man jacket over dark blue jeans and comfortable shirts were his signature look.  He drove a bicycle and hopped on the subway on daily basis. He refused to accept presents or board positions. He even rejected honors. There however were some not even Bill could refuse.

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Bill Cunningham

In 2008 he was awarded the Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and designated by the New York Landmarks Conservancy as “living landmark” a year later. He died organizing his next expedition to Central Park where he planned to fish for summer ‘décolletés’ on known and unknown bodies. Perhaps his contribution to immortalize the city he loved and the job that was his passion was best captured by yet another genius: Oscar de la Renta. «More than anyone else in the city, he has created the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York” Mr de la Renta said. With him gone there is little incentive in getting all dressed up for the street. Because as Anna Wintour put it “We all (New Yorkers) dress for Bill”. New York will definitively weep this loss for many years to come!!!

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