Bill Cunningham And 'Fashion Climbing'

Sep 13, 2018
Originally published on September 13, 2018 11:05 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The fashion world has been learning more about Bill Cunningham. He was a fashion photographer for The New York Times and had a way of stopping people on the street to get images of their outfits. After Cunningham died in 2016, his family discovered "Fashion Climbing," a secret memoir about his life in fashion before he became well-known. Here's Karen Grigsby Bates of our Code Switch team.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Bill Cunningham is still so deeply mourned by those of us who appreciated his work that sometimes we replay some of the videos he made for The New York Times just to hear his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CUNNINGHAM: This is Bill Cunningham from the trenches of fashion week in New York.

BATES: Cunningham's style section pages were avidly scanned for street trends from the ground up, and from the top down when he chronicled the clothes of the city's social set. Cathy Horyn, critic at-large for New York magazine and The Cut, knew Cunningham from her years as chief fashion critic for The New York Times.

CATHY HORYN: Bill always said that he thought fashion should be covered from three different perspectives. One was the street, and I would say probably the most important for Bill. The second was the runway. And the third was the clients.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK")

CUNNINGHAM: The best fashion show is definitely on the streets - always has been, and always will be.

BATES: That's him in the 2010 documentary "Bill Cunningham New York." New York would be Cunningham's home for his entire adult life, but he didn't start there. As "Fashion Climbing" says, he grew up in a strict Roman Catholic family in the Boston suburbs. That (imitating Boston accent) broad Boston A remained imbedded in his voice for life.

As a kid, Bill was interested in fashion, not football. That preference, he said, embarrassed his parents. They were distressed when he dropped out of Harvard his freshman year to pursue his passion for fashion. Hilton Als, staff writer at The New Yorker, says Cunningham persisted in this unusual quest despite the wishes of his tradition-minded family.

HILTON ALS: I don't think it would ever occur to someone like Bill, with that temperament, to give up because other people didn't support you or approve.

BATES: Cunningham began as a stock boy for fancy stores in Boston, then moved to New York and never looked back. At 19, he opened his own hat salon in a midtown townhouse. He led a kind of Holly Golightly existence as he showed his fanciful hats in gauze-draped rooms. He quit hats in the early '60s and began working as a fashion journalist.

In the late '70s, Cunningham began freelancing for The New York Times. It was a coup for the fashion-minded to be captured in his photos. But you wouldn't catch his eye with just a designer outfit, Hilton Als says.

ALS: I think he was not interested in fashion so much as he was interested in style.

CUNNINGHAM: And style, Cunningham says in "Fashion Climbing," is not as dependent on money and pedigree as some would think. So he took photos of black kids on skateboards, gay couples on their Sunday strolls, bicycle messengers and secretaries, as well as socialites. Cathy Horyn describes how he decided what was fresh and new.

HORYN: You know, he kept an ongoing file in his head of - if he saw people, let's say, wearing spotted fur, for instance, or oversized parkas, or a different pattern in their knits, he would just keep filing that in his mind until he had enough to do a piece for the Sunday page.

BATES: Those pages made a kind of yearbook for the city.

HORYN: So now, courtesy of Bill Cunningham, there's this enormous record of New York.

BATES: From the very beginning, Bill Cunningham loved New York, and New York loved him right back. "Fashion Climbing" is his last gift to the city - documentation of its style evolution for a half-century, a celebration of New York's glorious mix. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MS BRONX'S "FLYING 101") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.