Fashion people and random New Yorkers alike often spotted Cunningham in his element: biking, always (or riding the subway in the most inclement weather), or camped on the posh corner outside Bergdorf Goodman on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. Besides his set of wheels and the camera perpetually slung around his neck, Cunningham could easily be spotted thanks to his signature royal-blue workman’s jacket.
The former milliner and fashion reporter trained his lens on fabulous creatures teetering into fashion shows and society doyennes swishing around black-tie galas — and he was just as smitten by regular people going about their daily lives. His street shots of often mundane-seeming outfits on normal folks — hustling to work or hailing a cab, say — served as beautiful anthropological snapshots of the city. “Most of all we will remember the vivid, vivacious New York he captured in his photos,” as Mayor Bill DeBlasio aptly put it. Thus, Cunningham’s work showcased fashion in a way that wasn’t precious or inaccessibly elitist.
“He occupied a unique place in the fashion firmament,” Simon Doonan, Barneys New York’s creative ambassador-at-large, told the retailer’s blog.“He was a humble guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of La Mode. Irreplaceable.” In Anna Wintour's words, “We all dress for Bill,” as she told The New York Times in 2002 (and reiterated in the 2010 documentary, Bill Cunningham New York). “You feel he's the only one who notices or cares how you dress… And it's always a flattering picture he chooses. He picks everything carefully, so you will look your best. He's a very seductive guy.”
For some, like street style photographer and blogger Garance Doré, Cunningham paved the way professionally: "Some legends walk by you and you hardly notice them because that’s exactly what they want," Doré posted on Instagram Saturday. "Bill Cunningham was like this, and all his life he was able to keep that fire and the perfect distance from his subject, distance that allowed him to do the work that he did… He is a role model for many photographers, and definitely for me.” Another OG street style shutterbug, Tommy Ton, also took to Instagram to commemorate the late photographer.
He was far more than just an inspiration for V magazine founder and Harper’s Bazaar creative director Stephen Gan: The industry heavy-hitter credits Cunningham with kick-starting his career, back when Gan was just an 18-year-old Parsons student. Cunningham took him out for a cookie and gave him a quarter to call Details magazine founder and then-editor Annie Flanders, which shaped up to be Gan’s industry entrée. Everyone in the biz had (or wishes they had) an encounter with the man, from uberstylist and CR Fashion Book founder Carine Roitfeld to blogger Susie Bubble to Paper editorial director Mickey Boardman.
Cunningham was also the epitome of a workhorse incarnate — the very rare fashion show fixture with absolutely zero interest whatsoever in his own celebrity. “Everybody liked him but he was not into social life… He appeared and disappeared after he had done his job,” Karl Lagerfeld told WWD. “Not many people knew where and how he lived; he was an extremely discreet person… What will happen to his incredible archive?”
Here, 14 fashion industry power players, including influential editors, designers, buyers, and stylists, shared with Refinery29 their most cherished memories and thoughts on Cunningham’s enormous impact. New York Fashion Week certainly won’t feel the same without Cunningham and his blue jacket zipping around from show to show come September. We already miss you deeply, Bill.
Linda Fargo, Bergdorf Goodman Senior Vice President & Store Presentation Director
"Today, I wanted to paint a shadow of Bill in that specific posture of his, cradling his ever-ready camera with his trusty bike close by, onto our corner here at 57th and Fifth Avenue. It's his corner as much as it's Bergdorf's. We got to know each other slowly and respectfully over 20 years of sharing the same sidewalk and watching the world go by. He was the most enthusiastic supporter of our creative efforts in the windows, and that kept us going. As we all know, Bill had the highest standards for originality, and respect for DIY's and self-mades, and only said what he meant. He didn't have a false bone in that toughened, frail frame of his. Getting him to smile in approval with that childlike glee meant the absolute world to us. That shadow will have to be painted very, very long across all the sidewalks of all the fashionable cities in the world..."
Eric Wilson, InStyle Fashion News Director
“One of the great joys of covering fashion with Bill was just being around someone who remained so enthusiastic about the job, year after year, come what may. In an industry where everyone complains about everything, a bad collection, a snotty designer, a perceived slight or, more often than not, a real one, he was always grinning delightedly, asking what’s next. The first question he would ask at the start of each season was who was new on the calendar, the weirder, the better. He loved great fashion shows and terrible fashion shows, and relished a good fight, especially when Cathy [Horyn] pricked a designer’s ego with a bad review. 'You tell 'em, Madame Horyn,' he’d say in the car between shows, with his dukes up.
“He is also the only person I have ever known to be happiest during Fashion Week when there was rain or snow in the forecast, simply because it meant people would be dressing differently and eventually jumping over slush puddles (one of his favourite subjects for pictures). But I think the biggest source of his success was his independence, and, as is well known, he seemed to take an almost perverse pleasure in refusing any amenity offered by the designers who were so eager to please him because he cared that much about the integrity of the work. In Paris, while we complained that travel budgets had been slashed so much that a hotel room with a stand-up shower was considered a luxury, he would head off each night for the 50-euro-a-night Hotel Tiquetonne and a cup of soup from a Chinese takeout, and he couldn’t have been happier.
“It’s an example for young journalists that can’t be stressed enough: In his words, as he told me once at a party when he saw me taking an hors d’oeuvre, ‘Beware, child, of falling into the trappings of the rich.’”
“I personally mourn the death of the unique New Yorker, Bill Cunningham. He was a great photographer, artist, and a faithful friend to the fashion world. The city won’t be the same without him.”
I can still remember the first time I was shot by #BillCunningham. I called my boyfriend (now husband) @sxmco bellowing something along the lines of "omgbillcunninghamshotmeomg". The buzz and excitement of having his lens on you even for a nanosecond never got old. RIP to the great Bill, whose infectious and giddy love of fashion truly reflects the best of the industry, whose camera invented the street style category, and whose work ethic is a reminder to find a job you love and do it with gusto. Perfect illustration of Bill by @thingslizwants.
Eva Chen, Head Of Fashion Partnerships At Instagram
“The impact of Bill Cunningham’s influence on fashion is obvious: father of street style photography, fashion reportage as an art form, etc. The impact of Bill on my career is less obvious. Growing up in NYC as a first-generation American, I would look at Bill’s work each week and marvel to myself at the creative, stylish, and dynamic fashion folks he captured. So, the first time he pointed his camera at me at an event, it was ridiculously legitimising. It gave me hope that even a nerd like me could make it in fashion.”
Robin Givhan, Fashion Critic At The Washington Post
“Bill Cunningham couldn't have been more enthusiastic when I told him that I was working on [my book] The Battle of Versailles. It was an event that was really seared into his memory. Still, I was nervous about asking him whether I could use some of his photographs in the book. He was Bill Cunningham, after all! It was a slow process, mostly because all of my communication with him was via hand-written letter — you know, the kind with actual stamps.
“He wanted to make sure that the story was told accurately. He wanted that little slice of history recorded. And he told me that he had faith that I would do both. Then he said yes to my using the photographs. I was thrilled. Of course, I saved the letter. It's so much richer and more human than some printed-out email; it represents him well.”
"Without the great photographer Bill Cunningham, there would be no street style. Talent, taste, and kindness in abundance!”
Giovanna Battaglia, W Contributing Fashion Editor, Vogue Japan Senior Fashion Editor, & Street Style Regular
“Bill Cunningham was one of the very few people in fashion that no matter what, always had a smile on his face. The biggest reward was to see the joy in his eyes if I had on an amazing dress or if he liked my look. His enthusiasm fulfilled me more than anything else. My favourite memory was when he caught me at Chanel's fall 2014 supermarket-themed show, trying to steal all of the Chanel products. He watched in awe as I shamelessly pretended to hit the security guard over the head with a box of Choco Coco Chanel trying to escape with my Chanel branded goodies.”
Sarah Rutson, Vice President Of Global Buying, Net-A-Porter
“I remember wearing Haider Ackermann to the Met Ball in 2010 and Bill saying ‘Oh, my child, you’re in Haider Ackermann. So, so wonderful for the Met Ball.’ It was his stamp of approval. I loved the way he would act when he wanted to get your attention for a picture. It was always with his lips. He would make a sound that wasn't quite a whistle. It was like a sound you would make to get [a] cat to look up.
“Everything Bill did, he did with style and he found beauty in everything. Bill had a childlike joy of showing his pleasure at an outfit, shoe, or small detail. He would literally squeal: ‘Oh my, so wonderful!’ Never, ever did Bill miss a thing with his extraordinary eye. It’s the end of an era for a most unique gentleman."
“Bill was an original, and there will never be another like him. I'm just so grateful that I knew him, loved him, and could call him my friend. We had a special connection, and I'm so happy I finally got him to agree to sit down with me at the 92Y. It was an epic interview and clearly one of my favourites. I loved when he spoke about the young generation which he admired so much, and how they are dressing the inside of their heads and not so concerned about dressing the outside of [their] bodies.
“He who didn't have a phone or a TV understood the tech revolution we're living in: He said, ‘look at the lines outside Apple — they're not lining up to get into Bergdorf's or Saks.' I also loved that he covered all the AIDS benefits and parties in the early ’80s, before anyone was reporting on this. I think his coverage was in The NYT before they were reporting on the epidemic. He teared up talking about [AIDS]. He never took himself seriously — but he loved his fashion, his work, and the streets of our city. Let's get a plaque for him on 57th and Fifth.”
Ariel Foxman, InStyle & StyleWatch Editorial Director
“Bill Cunningham's lens and body of work is iconic, but what makes it all legendary is that its focus consistently spotlighted his very own wonder, discipline, and modesty.”
Kyle Anderson, Marie Claire Market & Accessories Director
"Of all of the editors, stylists, and creatives that attend Fashion Week, Bill was one of the most honest. He didn’t care about brands or who someone was, he searched for what he loved and what inspired him and shared it with the world. To me, Bill was one of the most true and honest editors that based everything they chose on a feeling and an instinct and a passion. The industry sadly doesn't work like that much any longer, but Bill certainly did.”
Ken Downing, Neiman Marcus Senior Vice President & Fashion Director
"A legend and an inspiration to generations, from behind his ever-ready lens, Bill's calculating eye and warm smile captured the life, times, and trends that defined us. Humble, sincere, enormously dedicated to his craft, Bill never took centre stage letting his subject be the star. A fixture at Fifth and 57th, he was the Mayor of Manhattan with a nod and a hello. It's hard to imagine the Sunday morning Times without him."
Arthur Sulzberger Jr, Publisher, The New York Times
“Bill was an extraordinary person with an incredible talent — not just for fashion photography but for life. His company was sought after by the fashion world’s rich and powerful, yet he remained one of the kindest, most gentle and humble people I have ever met. We have lost a legend, and I am personally heartbroken to have lost a friend.”
Laura Brown, Harper’s Bazaar Executive Editor
“There were so many remarkable things about Bill Cunningham, but what I loved about him most was his refusal: refusal to take a seat that was offered, a drink, or a dinner. He barely ever sat down, unless a fashion show was starting — he just kept moving. Didn’t Coco Chanel say ‘Elegance is refusal’? Bill was the most elegant of all.”