Sunday, 26 June 2016

Remembering Bill Cunningham, Fashion Fan

Bill Cunningham taking pictures of people attending New York Fashion Week
I was dreading this day would come and it did. New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham has passed away at 87.

He had been hospitalized recently following a stroke.

Every Saturday evening Hong Kong time I looked forward to watching his video reports, narrated slideshows of the latest trends he saw on the streets of New York.

Sitting in the front row at a Carolina Herrera show
He had a scratchy voice, but full of energy and wit, describing people as "crazy kids" and what they wore, but he had such enthusiasm talking about what he saw, and put it into historical context, that it made me realize that fashion isn't just about what's on the catwalk -- it's about what people are wearing on the street.

For him, fashion shows gave people ideas of how to interpret what the trends are but in their own way. And it also made me see that there are people out there who are individualistic, who aren't afraid to make their own fashion statement.

Or he would notice the changing of the seasons, or colour themes, like everyone wearing black and white stripes, or pink, or leather biker jackets, or fur collars. It was amazing how he would find so many people wearing similar things.

From his video reports showing fashion trends on the streets
Through Bill I became more observant about what other people wore too and saw trends there were happening in Hong Kong too.

I was mesmerized by him after watching the 2010 documentary, Bill Cunningham New York by Richard Press. The director followed Bill as he photographed people and put his columns together.

He always ensured there was a space between him and the subject -- he would photograph the high society ladies, but would never eat with them -- not even a glass of water. He was very ethical, and also true to himself.

When he was young, fashion was always his thing. His family was worried about him being so passionate about it, but he started by opening a millinery shop where he made hats, and would do jobs on the side to pay the bills.

Practically everyone was a subject for Bill to photograph
He did have high profile clients come in, but when hats began to go out of fashion, he picked up the camera instead and started writing about fashion. It was then that he discovered fashion on the street as the story he should be covering, with the pictures to prove it.

When my cousin lived in New York, he bumped into Bill once and had a picture taken with him; another friend who loves fashion, also saw him one wintry day. My brother recalls seeing on the subway a few months ago.

While Bill loved fashion, he himself was not a fashion plate. He lived very simply, wearing a shirt, his denim workman jacket he got in France, a pair of khakis and comfortable shoes, riding on his bicycle.

One of Bill's columns in the New York Times
His studio apartment above Carnegie Hall up until 2010 was filled with filing cabinets of negatives and pictures... one wonders what will happen to all those images...

Once the Metropolitan Museum of Art asked to exhibit his photographs and he declined; But I hope there will be some kind of dedication to Bill somewhere in New York -- like 57th Street and 5th Avenue where he used to stalk?

Thank you Bill, for being inclusive and enthusiastic about fashion. You've encouraged me to look at it with fresh eyes and greater appreciation. We will miss you.

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