Tuesday, May 15, 2012


By Lynda Castonguay

Bill Cunningham: The Grand Dad of Street Style

Photo by Carlo Allegri / REUTERS

Across and along sidewalks and intersections, down the street, up the street, in sunshine, rain, snow, and in every other weather condition in between, Bill Cunningham roams the streets of New York eyeing the human traffic and photographing their fashions. He is known as the Man on the Street, and his style column and videos for the New York Times are visual fashion delicacies. In his eighties, he is an unsuspecting fashion photographer and editor. His famous blue jacket, sweater vests, and casual pants also make him an unsuspecting character in the world of fashion. Do not be deceived, however. The click of his shutter button holds much power.

For decades now, Bill has positioned himself in all corners of the city documenting the fashion of the now while, at the same time, providing us with a visual timeline of the swift and gradual changes in our fashion choices. The streets of New York have a lot to say and Bill Cunningham takes the time to listen and learn.

Bill leads a simple life. He has few material possessions. He lived in the same small one bedroom apartment in Carnegie Hall for 60 years. He did not have a kitchen nor did he have his own washroom. His exit from this humble abode was only because Carnegie Hall was being converted into a music school. He travels on a dime: by bicycle. He eats on a dime: scours the city for bargains on meals. When his trustee rain coat frays from the harsh elements, he does not buy a new one, he tapes it up.

Photo by Scott Schuman

The stark contrast between his life and the lives of the people he pictures is rather interesting. Put side to side, you could swear they were from different worlds: one dressed in seemingly plain shirts and sweaters and casual trousers, the other in luxurious couture with a price tag possibly amounting to that of someone's annual salary. It was a wonder why such a person had any interest in a notoriously superficial profession but his purpose and his longing to be where he is, doing what he is doing is answered in his documentary Bill Cunningham New York and has most certainly made a fan out of me. But, with so many ambitious persons capturing street style, what is Bill's appeal? What makes him the charming and witty powerhouse that he is? It's simple and complicated.

Fashion, at first glance, can be seen as just a means to cover up. However, it is much more. What we choose to wear and how we choose to present ourselves is an outward expression of inner workings – whether you tap into those reasons or not, that is entirely up to you. A terrifying number of fashion and style blogs are void of any real substance and progressive content (Fashion Studio excluded of course). They only show the author of the blog at various awesome events, with various awesome people, wearing various awesome clothing. They may not realize it but their blogs are narcissistic endeavours and have nothing to do with exploring this particular art form. Most of the said bloggers do not understand or appreciate the social math behind fashion. Bill does. He understands that there are personal and social elements in our choices and what he then delivers gives substance to fashion - something so rare today.

Dressed for Bill Gala at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York (Photos by Julie Skarratt) 

Bill knows that the timing, the angle, and the colour are of the essence and to capture this great combination, it means to not disturb the moment. He respects the real life aspect. He will not stop your clock to snap a photo, he runs with it. But even while he seems rushed, what he is in fact doing is slowing down to capture what we're too busy to see: trends.

Live reporting from the runways will tell you that peplums are dominating this season and that head to toe matching is the next big thing. Designers try to dictate what the greatest and best trends will be. However, once away from the runways, how these collections are worked into people's wardrobes is what is crucial; how fashion is translated into real time and real life from the runway to the streets. Bill lets the trends speak for themselves, not by a fashion conglomerate. He disseminates fashion truth, for the lack of a less corny term, because as he once said “the fashion designers suggest, the women decide”.

In his career as a photographer and writer, Bill has unknowingly turned himself into a historian and a teacher. With humble photography beginnings of street style during World War II, he karts with him so much fashion precedence that it is impossible to make his ranks. "More than anyone else in the city, he has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York” has said designer Oscar de la Renta. Every time he snaps a photo, an invisible golden thread is drawn between fashion's past and fashion's present. Only Bill Cunningham has the ability to bind modern day women with the incandescent Greta Garbo, the subject of a photograph which allegedly catapulted his career.

Photo by Paul Kessel

Bill, the grand dad of street style, is not a snazzy, well clad hipster blogger who also wants to be noticed by other photographers. He flies totally under the radar, preferring to remain behind the camera. His true intrigue of fashion is loud and clear and he would never want to steal the limelight away from it.

His attention is caught by the high ranking fashion aficionado’s as well as the unknowns. So long as it is interesting, his lens does not discriminate. His impeccable eye for fashion does not disappoint. His sense of what is titillating is innate. His zest for the art form is undeniable.

Bill Cunningham may be cinematizing the next big fashion star or movement, from the upsized YSL carryall, to the growing popularity of an oversized clutch, but the real star of the streets of New York is Bill himself - a staple to most, a friend to those lucky, a celebrity to others, but a charm to all.

More articles by Lynda: ALEXANDER MCQEEN

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