Bill Cunningham was a fashion original.
The legendary New York Times photographer was a fixture at fashion weeks in New York, Milan and Paris, roaming the streets outside shows and on the front row inside, always looking for the perfect picture of how the world dresses today. He often ignored the rich and the famous, instead getting excited about photographing a regular person on the street who exhibited real personality, not in looks dictated by fashion magazines or high-priced stores.
"I let the streets speak to me," he said in the 2011 documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. "You have to stay on the street and let it tell you. There are no short cuts, believe me."
Cunningham died Saturday a few days after suffering a stroke. He was 87.
Coming a little more than a week after the death of Tootsies owner Mickey Rosmarin, it was a sad reminder that the fashion world has lost two real originals.
In nearly 40 years working for the Times, known primarily for his On The Street feature in the Sunday edition and coverage of the New York social scene, Cunningham never let his growing fame go to his head. Instead he seemed embarrassed by it. He always wore the same outfit — blue French's worker's smock, khaki slacks and sneakers — and was single-minded to get the best shot, racing backward down the street to snap a stylish passerby or zeroing in on an interesting pair of shoes in the snow or rain.
Just to be considered as a subject by Cunningham was a reward in itself. "I've said it many times, we all get dressed for Bill," Vogue editor Anna Wintour says in the Cunningham documentary.
Houston retailer Mauri Oliver sure felt that way. In New York on a buying trip for More Than You Can Imagine, the store that she co-owns with mother Vicki Rizzo, Oliver had a chance encounter with the man in a blue jacket who always rode his bike around Manhattan in 2012.
"He'd parked his bike near the intersection of 57th and 5th and was snapping shots of street fashion. I was so star struck that I couldn't resist taking HIS picture," Oliver recalled by email. "He spotted me and snapped my picture! Of course it ended up on the cutting room floor, but it was a memory I will never forget."
I, too, have an indelible memory of Cunningham. In Paris for the 2009 runway shows, I was present when he and International Fashion Syndicate editor Mary Lou Luther received the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French minister of culture in a ceremony at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs.
Designers Sonia Rykiel, Rick Owens and Gareth Pugh looked on as Luther and Cunningham each received a gold medal from French officials. In a moving speech given in half English and half French, Cunningham explained the importance of fashion.
"I'm not interested in the celebrities with their free dresses. I look at the clothes— the cut, the lines, the color, that's everything. It's the clothes, not the celebrity and not the spectacle. It's as true today as it ever was: He who seeks beauty will find it," he said.
At the end of his short speech, Cunningham was so moved with emotion that he burst into tears. It was an electric moment.
Then he went back to work — he always had his camera with him — photographing the people at the party who caught his eye.
Up until just days before his death, Cunningham's search for beauty continued. Fortunately for us, he left a treasure trove of images that define beauty and fashion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Luther, who worked with Cunningham for many years when he photographed the Europe shows for her when she was fashion editor of The Los Angeles Times from 1969-1986 and became a close friend, recalls that his work was his life. "And both were examples of perfection," she recalled by email. "Bill was one in a billion."
Cunningham's frugal nature was legendary. Luther recalls in Paris, he found a hotel for $2 a night, with no toilet in the room and not bath or shower. "When he would come to my hotel to pick me up so we could go together to file our coverage, I would always tell him that I wasn't quite ready and that if he would like to use my bathroom to take a shower, please do. He did. And he always left the bathroom cleaner than he found it," she said. "I loved, admired, revered him — both for his work and his life."