Photographed by Joyce Culver.
This story was originally published on September 4, 2014.
Anna Wintour once said, "We all get dressed for Bill." And, why wouldn't we? It’s no secret that Bill Cunningham, The New York Times street style photographer, is one of the most beloved figures in fashion. He’s adored by all, not just for his unique body of work, which dates back decades, but for his humility, charm, and overall passion for clothing and his job. But, for someone that the industry holds in such a high regard, Cunningham has chosen to keep his personal life very private. Little was known of the man silently snapping pics of women on the street until the recent documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, was released. (He's never seen it, by the way.)
So, it was surprising that he participated in New York Fashion Week creator Fern Mallis' Fashion Icon series at the 92Y. And, given that he is nearing 86 (an observation that prompted him to remark, "I don't think about age, child"), there was certainly a lot of ground to cover. At the event, the duo touched on everything from why he doesn't wear a helmet while biking around the city ("It's none of your business," he explained. "When it's a law, I'll wear a helmet.") to working with icons like Diana Vreeland — whom he described as "a piece of work," but "marvelous" nonetheless — and covering primarily gay events on Fire Island Pines during the height of the AIDS epidemic. (He was one of the first and only to report on it, as Mallis pointed out).
Cunningham was as humble as ever while reminiscing on the days before he picked up a camera, working as a milliner for elite clientele including Katharine Hepburn, the Rockefeller family, and Marilyn Monroe. Naturally, he wasn't one to boast about his track record with the rich and famous. When Mallis brought up the rumored story that, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy flew her red designer suit to New York for Cunningham to personally dye black for the historic funeral, he sheepishly confirmed. Mallis sat back in awe to reflect on the amazing story, but Cunningham simply countered, "No, it was just practical."
He went about his career as a photographer with a sense of caution, never allowing money to dictate what he does. "I'm terrified of taking money because then they own you," he explained. "I'd have to do what they want. And, this way I can do what I want." Along those same lines, he has kept a record of every single photograph he's taken since he began his career. "I have a fear of giving up the files. The fear is, other people getting them and using a picture that might be unflattering to someone," he said. "Yes, of course you take bad pictures, but you don't publish them." At least, he doesn’t, which is one of the many reasons he is so celebrated.
For Cunningham, it has always been about the clothes, not who was wearing them. He never wanted his Times column to be about chasing celebrities, which he believes is what's wrong with the fashion industry today. "Fashion will kill itself by lending clothes and giving them and then paying the celebrities to wear them," he said. "Why would you expect anyone to buy anything when you're paying someone to wear it?!"
When the conversation shifts to the topic of Fashion Week, he urges editors and other insiders to focus on the work that's being presented — not all the buzz around it. After all, being able to preview collections by top designers is a great honor that many take for granted. "You're invited to see the work of artists, great artists," he states. "Think about what they’re showing, look at the clothes, look at what they do for the body."