The Death of Bill Cunningham Signals a Palpable Paradigm Shift in NYC Fashion

Bill Cunningham was very literally a living landmark of New York City. You couldn’t go anywhere in Manhattan without eventually spotting him behind his signature camera, waiting for the perfect rare bird of fashion to pass by. The release of the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York emphasized a long underlooked point that much of the sartorial paradigm shifts that occurred in New York were directly influenced by who Cunningham would decide to photograph.

Starting out in fashion on the lowest rung, a stockboy at Bonwit Teller in Boston, Cunningham found himself writing for Women’s Wear Daily by the 1960s after dropping out of Harvard and moving to New York. Subsequently, he created a successful line of hats under the brand William J, and was eventually encouraged by his clients to branch out into other avenues. Admired for his eye and attention to unconventional forms, Cunningham proceeded to change the shape of the editorials at major publications, but also those of underground ones. His prolific photography in the 80s in particular showcased a lifestyle that those outside of New York could never have imagined without him.

Oscar De La Renta would comment, “More than anyone else in the city, he has the whole visual history of the last forty or fifty years of New York. It’s the total scope of fashion in the life of New York.” The fact that Cunningham single-handedly documented the day to day of fashion in the city is a testament to his most famous aphorism, “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.”

Seemingly, June 25th is a cursed date for icons, as Michael Jackson, too, passed away on the same day in 2009. Though Cunningham lived a full life at eighty-seven, it is nonetheless a tragedy to think that we’ll never see him riding the streets on his bicycle again, lending his unique eye to catch something that none of the rest of us were capable of seeing. What will New York’s raw fashion scene become without him to document it? Will it grow lazier than ever before, devolving into some grotesque sea of denim and khaki à la west coast? It’s not impossible.

As Anna Wintour once said, “We all get dressed for Bill.” Now, it’s kind of like, what’s the point?