8 Things We Loved From Bill Cunningham's Memoir

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images.
Legendary photographer Bill Cunningham was an immensely private person. A New York Times fashion photographer for 38 years, Cunningham was a pioneer of street style imagery, capturing the slight brush of a skirt or the way a tweed coat looked amongst the gray concrete of his favorite corner in Manhattan, 57th and 5th. He always wore the same blue jacket. He rode his bike everywhere. It was a surprise, then, when The Times revealed a secret memoir was discovered in his archive. (He died in June 2016 at age 87.)
Titled Fashion Climbing, Cunningham's memoir, which is out now, offers a rare look into his life, including his childhood, his time serving in the Korean War, his move to Manhattan and the launch of his millinery business and his stint as an outspoken columnist for Women's Wear Daily. It features anecdotes about the Dior review John Fairchild, WWD's then-publisher, wouldn't let him print, the new-age American designers (Norell, Sarmi, Ben Zuckerman) who saw meteoric success only to crash and burn, and the Hamptons social climbers he hated.
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“Bill was a true original,” Christopher Richards, the editor at Penguin Press who bought the book at auction, told The Times. “For me, this book is really for those of us who came to New York with a dream and saw New York City as a real oasis of creativity and freedom, a place to be who we want to be. It’s a really beautiful story about a young, artistic man finding his way in the city, in a particular kind of bohemian world that doesn’t quite exist anymore.”
The memoir takes us back to a time when Fashion wasn't all 'see-now, buy now' and Instagram likes, and encourages us to pay closer attention to the intricacies of getting dressed. As Hilton Als writes in the book's preface: "Even if you were not the happy recipient of his interest — the subject of his camera's click click click and Bill's glorious toothy smile — there were very few things as pleasurable as watching his heart beat fast...as he saw another fascinating woman approach, making his day." There are so many moments in Cunningham's book that made us smile, but these eight are ones that had us grinning, cheek-to-cheek, just like Bill.
His Dating Life
"I definitely chose my girlfriends because of their chic. If they didn't wear just what I thought was the right gown, that ended the romance."
His Thoughts On The State Of Retail
"Selling fine clothes is an art equal to designing them. Unfortunately, it's an art unappreciated today. Today's generation thinks of it as a lowly occupation... The art of selling fine clothes has been lost in big, overcrowded department stores where the intimate personal interest is not important. That's why fine clothes from the most important designers are now being sold in small, privately owned shops around America. No elegant lady spending hundreds of dollars for a dress wants to push her way through a mobbed department store."
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His Business Acumen
"The principal reason for me to start my own business was to bring happiness to the world by making women an inspiration to themselves and everyone who saw them. I wanted fashion to be happy–but oh my God, what an idealist I was. The road I was to travel was full of thorns, where women wanted to use fashion for impressing friends, climbing the social ladder, and everything but sheer enjoyment."
His Self-Realization
"I was disappointed when the elegant ladies wouldn't buy my hats. I soon realized they wanted only fashions similar to the big names of Paris but made more cheaply by an unknown. My designs were too original, and they were afraid of criticism and being thought of as coming from the wrong side of the tracks. The road of a true creator is a long, hard trail, with little recompense at first. It's a bitter battle, but the promise of success in creating what you truly believe is so rewarding it makes the fashion ladder reach the gates of paradise."
His Carrie Bradshaw Moment
"When I would feel the pangs of hunger, I would go out looking in store windows and feed myself on beautiful things."
His Design Savvy
"Designing a fashion collection is like growing antennas that reach high into the unknown and hopefully higher than any other designer's. It's a long time growing them till inspiration begins to tickle and outrates that of your competitors."
His Brutal Honesty
"Reviewing designers' collections was the most difficult, because I had to be honest, and to my initial shock I found that 90 percent of the Seventh Avenue designers who had been passing their work off as real creations of their own personalities had in reality just taken ideas from other designers, especially those from Paris. When I reported this shameful turn of events in one of my columns, there was a lot of hell-raising, and I was thrown out of many of the shows."
His Feelings On High-Fashion
"When it comes to great individual fashion, as often shown in Vogue and Harper's, the general public — even if they were given the high styles free of charge — wouldn't know what to do with them, or have the slightest idea how or where to wear them. These high fashions, in their pure form, are meant for only a few women. It's only one in ten thousand who could successfully wear furs, feathers, jewels, and satins all at once and not look like a streetwalker."
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