“He who seeks beauty will find it.”
It was a much-loved motto of the consummately curious photographer Bill Cunningham, who died over the summer at 87. And if the tireless New York Times street-style eye could have only seen the turnout at Carnegie Hall on Monday to celebrate him, he would have surely shouted out one of his signature exclamatory quips: “Marvelous!”
Instructed on the invite to “Dress for Bill,” the city’s era-spanning fashion plates turned up to pay their respects. The notables included Iman, Michael Kors, Ralph and Ricky Lauren, Jenna Lyons, Iris Apfel, Eva Chen, Grace Coddington, Leandra Medine, Tavi Gevinson, Vera Wang, Virgil Abloh and Zac Posen. The location was particularity meaningful, with Cunningham long calling home the artist residences above the iconic concert hall.
It was an event worthy of a man who brought delight to so many, yet also signaled the end of era. After all, who else in this social media day and age would resist much monetary compensation, strings-attached freebies, even hors d’oeuvres with Cunningham’s ethical fervor?
“He was without an agenda,” said New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., summing him up justly as “a first-rate photographer, but a better man.”
Indeed, his unwavering morals and unending enthusiasm for his work till the very end was a theme shared by many throughout the program.
Anna Wintour, who emotionally recalled her “uplifting joy at always seeing Bill outside the shows,” read the poem “So We’ll Go No More a Roving” by Lord Byron.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognized the significant impact Cunningham had on shaping the city he held so dear.
“Few people have captured the spirit and rich originality of New York as Bill,” he said, after admitting he himself felt slightly out of place amongst this fashionable crowd. “He understood that fashion and the way people wore their clothes was an expression of freedom. Bill knew that the best runways are the city.”
Philanthropic bigwigs such as Sandy and Joan Weill plus family members and friends shared more touching and often amusing anecdotes. But perhaps one of the most poignant memories came from Joanna Nikas, a colleague at the newspaper. When asked by Cunningham if she had on red lipstick one day because she had a date, the style editor told him she was wearing it “for myself.”
“That’s it, child,” he told her, using his signature term of endearment, regardless of one’s age. “Remember, they need you. You don’t need them.”
The whole event begged a bigger question: As the population of street-style photographers continues to spike, who will fill Cunningham’s charming, humble and forever-principled shoes?