Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s international editor-at-large, felt a jolt of pride the day he spotted Bill Cunningham snapping a picture of him crossing the street, sporting a bright jacket he had recently acquired as part of a collection of 1940s-era designer outerwear.
Yet nothing could quite beat the feeling Bowles experienced when he opened the New York Times one subsequent Sunday to find that he was the subject of an entire Style section spread, wearing the series of colorful jackets. The feature, like all of Cunningham’s photosets, was thoughtfully curated and emblematic of his signature style, Bowles said.
“It took his unique eye to identify what was most exciting in fashion and style and to curate those images in the way he did, really in a one-of-a-kind visual swoop,” Bowles said. “He could bring a trend to life as vividly and memorably as anyone could.”
Though Cunningham passed away this Saturday at 87, the legacy of the late New York Times fashion photographer was remembered by the many fashion editors he rubbed elbows with from his outpost on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue and behind the scenes at fashion shows.
Cunningham grew into a bit of an urban anthropologist during the course of his 40 years at the Times. Bowles said it was Cunningham’s keen sense of style and robust historical knowledge that helped him keep a pulse on the “nuances of change in fashion.”
“With his extraordinary historical view and his embrace of the new and his excitement about change in fashion, he was able to embrace, identify and celebrate emerging trends literally at street level,” he said.
Bowles, who penned a heartfelt column to Cunningham for Vogue on Sunday evening, noted that his instinct was buoyed by an unwavering enthusiasm, which was evident even in the last fashion shows he covered. Bowles recalled sitting next to Cunningham at a recent Tom Brown show, and was moved by his steadfast zest for the industry.
“It was so uplifting to see someone, after all those years, completely not faded, and so curious to the end about change in fashion,” Bowles said.
Veronique Hyland, fashion news editor at The Cut, had a similar experience upon spotting Cunningham at a fashion show a few years back, wearing his uniform of blue jacket and khaki pants. Though she never knew him personally, she was awed by his passion.
“What was interesting in his work was that he would remark on these trends that weren’t necessarily runway trends, but things that affected the politics and culture of the time,” she said, noting his coverage of patriotic apparel following 9/11.
His approach to capturing the everyday person and their unique style has influenced the way The Cut captures fashion coverage, including its focus on “style tribes,” Hyland said, including most recently a feature on the fashions at a Dolly Parton concert in Queens, or the opening of the VFiles store in Soho.
Cunningham was also known for his strict adherence to journalistic ethics, refusing any handout that might cloud his coverage, including even a glass water, said editors. Standing firm on his values is one of the many traits admired by Laura Brown, executive editor of Harper’s Bazaar.
“There were so many remarkable things about Bill Cunningham, but what I loved about him most was his refusal,” Brown said. “Refusal to take a seat that was offered, a drink, or a dinner. He barely ever sat down, unless a fashion show was starting — he just kept moving.”
“Didn’t Coco Chanel say ‘Elegance is refusal’? Bill was the most elegant of all,” she added.
Photo still by Richard Press from ‘Bill Cunningham New York’