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The last time I saw Bill Cunningham, the New York Times photographer who died last weekend aged 87, was during New York Fashion Week in February. The city was in the grip of a polar vortex, perishing in sub zero temperatures.
As fashion editors staggered about in their stilettos, negotiating the perilous but tiny distance from icy kerb to clammy catwalk in their furs and finery, Cunningham assumed his customary position, sneaker-shod feet on the street, taking pictures, that signature “bend-and-snap” manoeuvre that took place at lightning speed as a procession of editors, buyers and models crossed his path. He wore his preferred uniform of a French blue worker’s jacket and chinos, a torn poncho thrown over his frail but nimble figure to protect his Nikon camera. As always, he was grinning. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing him not smiling. Even in those frigid conditions, Cunningham always appeared to be genuinely delighted by the enthusiasm and, perhaps, insanity of the small society that will always put the pursuit of peacockery before all else — even at the risk of frostbite.
Cunningham’s devotion to fashion has been eulogised at length in the days since his death. His efforts to document style as and when he saw it were unprecedented. He captured it in “On the Street”, the NYT column in which he showcased the outfits of everyday folk and often predicted key trends months before they emerged in the fashion press. He admired it in society, chronicling Manhattan’s philanthropic elite in his other NYT column, “Evening Hours”. And he observed it at the shows themselves, where he preferred to sit alongside the catwalk rather than in the photographers’ pit to better capture a look. He will be recognised as one of the era’s great historians, his photographs a record of the changing face of our society.
More significantly, perhaps, Cunningham should be remembered as a man of principle: an aesthete who for most of his life lived like a monk in a tiny rent-controlled studio in Carnegie Hall. Cunningham disdained all “fancy” trappings. He lived on $3 sandwiches, declined to cash employers’ cheques and would refuse so much as a glass of water if it was offered as hospitality. “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do,” he told the documentary-makers behind 2010’s Bill Cunningham New York of his ascetic moderation. “Don’t touch money,” he said. “That’s the worst thing you can do.”
Cunningham’s frugality was exemplary. A Roman Catholic who went to church every Sunday — “no big deal, I go and repent” — he travelled everywhere by bicycle. He severed his relationship with Women’s Wear Daily in the early 1960s when he got into a feud with its publisher, John Fairchild, over who was a better designer: Yves Saint Laurent or André Courrèges. He only accepted a staff contract at the New York Times when he was hit by a truck, in 1994, so that his medical insurance would be covered in the event of another accident. His eye was completely uncompromised.
Such exceptional self-discipline and professional impartiality is sobering. In this age of the luxury conglomerate and the all-inclusive press trip, I have enjoyed the benefits of corporate largesse. Never mind the water, I’ve sipped the champagne, dined on the food and slept on the 600-thread-count sheets that attend my journalistic participation. I am often delivered to appointments by a chauffeur-driven car. Do I adore the fashions about which I write so much that I would consider covering it at my own expense, or on a bicycle? I’m ashamed to admit, I do not. Neither do many others.
This is nothing new, but in recent seasons the boundaries between criticism and concession have become ever more blurred. Today the fashion diary is awash with exclusive presentations, often staged in far-off locations, at which the shows are wrapped up in a schedule of events and parties designed to maximise our experience.
Who wants to be the principled outsider who declines an invitation only to watch their competitors walk away with the story, the contacts and the inside information gleaned over the dinner table? Not me.
Cunningham was motivated by little other than his obsession. Photography and style absorbed every aspect of his life. He didn’t have time to cook, to watch television, go to films or share any part of his life with a partner.
“I never had a romantic relationship,” he admitted to the camera crew in 2010. “I didn’t have time. You have body urges, but you control it as much as you can.”
Cunningham’s only appetite was for fashion. It was the only nourishment he required. And he was all the more remarkable for it. Most of us, sadly, do need that glass of water.