The Man in the Blue Jacket

I never met Bill Cunningham. He never took my photo and published in in the New York Times. But like millions of people around the world, the news of his death at 87 this past Saturday brought me to tears.

He seemed – from the 2010 documentary about him and from the voice-overs he did for his weekly “on the street” column – to be a truly genuine person. Eccentric as all get out, but honest, humble, hard-working and funny. Cunningham had an eye, you see, that not so much noticed trends, but that started them. He photographed everyone from the rich to the poor, the only criteria being that they were wearing something unique and attention-catching. He had no interest in celebrity (“I’m not interested in celebrities and their free dresses. I’m interested in fashion!”), and would not take so much as a glass of water when photographing events – meaning he was free of any obligation to include anyone other than those whose style he felt truly inspired by.

Cunningham started taking street photography in the late 1960s and always worked in film, keeping the negatives of every photo he’s ever taken, filling row upon row of filing cabinets, documenting the changing styles of the street for half a century. He was apparently approached once to do a book based on his archive but later backed out. I dearly hope that whoever takes control of his estate recognizes the value of his work and finally turns those photos into a book.

Scratch that – I want a series of books. Hundreds of pounds of books – to rival that massive molecular gastronomy collection from a few years ago – that literally documents western street fashion for the past half century. Donate the proceeds to FIT or the Met, or use it to create scholarships in fashion and photography, just please, can we have something tangible to remember him by?

Some other people whose writing I admire have documented their meeting with Cunningham. Check these out if you want more on the mahvellous man and his work.

Cintra Wilson for GQ Magazine

Forest City Fashionista

Idiosyncratic Fashionistas

My own Ode to Bill from 2014.

And if you haven’t seen Bill Cunningham New York, watch it now. If you have seen it, watch it again, it’s worth the 2 hours of your life.

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The Mahvellous Bill Cunningham

Street fashion – and street fashion photography – is now ubiquitous in most cities. Online, there are even niche sites dedicated to older women, people of colour or particular style trends. But most of these blogs tend to simply record what’s out there, and what’s currently hot within mainstream fashion. Here in Toronto, where we’re definitely less adventurous than other cities, it’s not uncommon to visit street style websites, or even articles in our major papers, and see pretty young girls in the same trends – currently, cutoff jeans, brown suede boots and flowered shirts – from the typical fast fashion mall store.

But in New York, street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham of the New York Times doesn’t just record the fashions he sees on the streets, he takes an active part in setting trends and provoking stylish New Yorkers to follow suit.

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