Bill Cunningham: The Eye Behind Street Style

By Trilby Goouch
Blogs Editor

At first glance, Bill Cunningham looks like your average 83-year-old; his greying hair, twinkling eyes and sweater vests portray him as someone who isn’t consumed with fashion or trends. Yet Bill is perhaps the most influential photographer in today’s fashion industry. He hates money, glamour, status and technology, yet his passions lie in world that goes against so much that he stands for.

Bill Cunningham is an enigma; he photographs the wealthiest, most influential people in fashion, yet he won’t purchase a proper raincoat (he prefers to use a plastic poncho, which he continuously reuses and mends with duct tape). He refuses to look at his monthly cheques, preferring the money to be put out of sight or given away. He refuses to go digital, won’t take a cab or buy a car, and he hates food, stating he only eats out of necessity. He takes his job seriously; he won’t accept a drink or appetizer at an annual ball or charity event, and avoids mingling with the rich at all costs. So what is this mysterious, eccentric character doing in the ego-centric, materialistic fashion industry?

He lives and breaths for fashion; not the status, the money or the celebrity, but the sheer beauty of a rippling silk or biased cut. For Bill, style comes from the streets; it’s the everyday New Yorkers that define the newest trends. For over 40 years Bill has been found biking through the streets of New York, camera slung around his neck, constantly on the lookout for a potential shot. He has been known to snap a homeless woman for her creative layering, depicting it as the source for the “bag lady” look popularized by the Olsen twins.

Anna Wintour (editor in chief of Vogue) has defined Bill as the source of every trend that hits the magazines; he takes photos of everyday individuals, searching for developing trends and reoccurring looks. He then presents them in a weekly spread for The New York Times.

Despite the fact that Bill has attended every fashion week, charity ball and birthday on Page Six for the last 40 years, no one really knows Bill Cunningham. Even his best friends are unaware of his upbringing, his family life, whether he’s ever fallen in love (he’s always smiling, joking and laughing in a way that makes you question whether he’s ever experienced a bad mood). Yet how could you not develop a façade when you’re working in a world obsessed with image?
Bill Cunningham’s eye is one of the most sought after in the media, because he’s one of the few who have avoided the corruption of Hollywood; he only photographs what he sees as beautiful, and if Kristen Stewart is wearing something that doesn’t move him, he won’t bother. He provides a vision of clarity in a world skewed by status; an elderly woman dressed in a colourful silk scarf will take precedent over Lady Gaga’s latest get up, even if the latter will attract more viewers. Bill Cunningham is the anti-pose of a sell-out.

Find out more about Bill Cunningham in the up-close-and-personal documentary, Bill Cunningham New York.

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