Dear Publishers of the World,
Now, maybe one of you is already on it. And if so, thank you, and good on you, and you’ll be seeing my money soon. If not, let’s talk. Bill Cunningham. Have you heard of him? He’s the original street style photographer, the ultimate insider/outsider advocate of fashion. An award-winning documentary was recently made about him. He is still with us: 83 years old and documenting our dress as diligently as ever.
Bill Cunningham is the man we’ve been stalking this New York Fashion Week. Not because we want to be shot by him but because we want to see as he sees. “It’s not what I think, it’s what I see,” he said of his photo curation. For nearly five decades, Bill Cunningham has been photographing the way we dress, from the aspirational fashion of the runways to the embodied dress of the street. His magazine career started in the 1960s at Women’s Wear Daily and then onto Time and the Chicago Tribune. In the 1980s, he traded paychecks for extra page space at Details. He was published extensively, generously, in Visionaire through the 1990s. The New York Times has been his home for some time. His street style photo-collage column “On The Street” (“The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been and always will be.”) has been running in that paper for nearly two decades.
At VFiles, a New York-based digital archive of fashion print media, I had the opportunity to page through Cunningham’s early work for Details and Visionaire. It is history, culture, sociology, beauty. This is why I am writing you. Cunningham’s eye is discerning but not discriminating. He looks upon vagabond downtown looks as he does upon uptown pristinity, understanding the sociology of dress but seeking beauty above all else. He appreciates form, color, and texture in cloth. He spots trends as they are performed, before they are published for purchase. Accepting the award of Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture, he expressed through a throat in tears, “It’s as true today as it ever was, he who seeks beauty will find it.” He finds beauty for us.
Oscar de la Renta noted that, “More than anyone else in the city, Bill has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York. It’s the total scope of fashion in the life of New York.” Cunningham has always published in ephemeral media, magazines and newspaper. He still shoots in film. The stories he has told over the years (“I’m writing with pictures—that’s what I always tell them.”) amount to a half-century of fashion history. But this history is hard to access, dispersed across periodical titles, which are held in private archives or fading to brown in boxes forgotten.
On Vfiles, you can see some of what I’m talking about. High-res images from Details’ early days and the complete Visionaire archive are available on the site. In an editorial from Details No. 3 (1983), Cunningham remarks, of the street style scene, “The liberated thinkers seen on these pages are far removed from the cookie-cutter production of Seventh Avenue, opening new doors so others can safely follow. What we see here is the real original — as close to the art of dressing as you will find anywhere.” We want the real original Bill Cunningham. Publishers, consider this project: Bill Cunningham’s archives, edited and printed, bound in book form.
Until then, we’ll be on the lookout for the photographer’s signature bicycle and royal blue work jacket. We’ll be enjoying “On the Street” and the beauty of Bill’s eye wherever we can find it.
Fiona and Bullett