Famed street style and fashion photographer Bill Cunningham wrote a secret memoir and it’s a thing of beauty.
The work, titled Style Climbing, will reveal never-before-seen details of his extraordinary life.
Many have revered Cunningham as the godfather of street style – for practically inventing the concept and responsible for the reams for street style imagery sprawled across your Instagram discover feed.
The legendary photographer found cult status with his ‘On the Street’ and ‘Evening Hours’ columns for the New York Times, capturing fashion in its real-life habitat, rather than purely on the runways.
His celebrated images led to the much-lauded documentary Bill Cunningham New York (2010), in which Anna Wintour declared ‘we all dress for Bill’.
This newly discovered memoir can now be seen as a foreword to the documentary – it covers his love of fashion from a young age, his bohemian start in New York, his spell as a hat-maker and his first forays into the world of journalism.
Here is a taster of what to expect...
A Secret Memoir
No one knew Cunningham had even been writing a memoir. A series of drafts were found at his Manhattan apartment after his death in 2016, along with an archive valued at $1 million. Although he captured strangers’ style so brilliantly, he was an intensely private man; even those closest to him knew little of the stories he had to tell. It’s not actually clear whether he wanted the memoir to be published, and there are still many questions he leaves unanswered, such as when did he write the work and what was his sexual orientation?
Holly Golightly Wit
The book's preface, by Hilton Als of The New Yorker, defines the memoir as having a Breakfast at Tiffany’s feel. And it's true, Style Climbing is full of acerbic wit, and a Holly Golightly tone. Expect gossip, hyperbolic 50s language and bon mots: he exposes “orgies that took place under the tables” at a Plaza Hotel event and includes maxims such as “a servant can have superb taste in tying her apron”, all recounted in his “unmistakable voice”.
A Budding Style Maven
“There I was, 4 years old, decked out in my sister’s prettiest dress…Women’s clothes were always much more stimulating to my imagination”. It’s clear Cunningham had an early love of style, which would lead to a career in photojournalism defined by an incomparable gaze. However, his artistic interests troubled his Catholic parents. His mother “beat the hell” out of him after this dress-wearing incident. But Cunningham, ever the dreamer, still left Boston for New York in search of inspiration and freedom of expression.
A Flirtation With Hats
Cunningham’s first brush with fashion saw him design hats for Hollywood stars Marylin Monroe and Katherine Hepburn. His spell as a milliner, under the name of William J in the 1950s, was a huge success. Flamboyant designs and exuberant charm were his calling card, but the boutique closed with changing fashions. This hastened his move into journalism; prompted by his hat-wearing clients, he began writing for Women’s Wear Daily. At Style Climbing’s heart lies his unique eye and love of style, which would later go on to define Bill Cunningham’s original brand of photojournalism.
The memoir tells the story of “a young, artistic man finding his way in the city, in a particular kind of bohemian world that doesn’t quite exist anymore.” And what a bohemian New York start he had. From surviving on three spoonfuls of Ovaltine a day – instead he gorged on Madison Avenue window displays – to pawning the bike he rode around town when hatmaking materials ran low, the book contains wonderfully eccentric anecdotes. Even his later years, spent living humbly among ‘William J’ hatboxes and cabinets of his photographic archive, are reminiscent of his unconventional beginning. It's safe to say Bill Cunningham was one of the last true bohemians.
Released in October in the UK, Style Climbing is sure to become a coffee table staple among the fashion set, and beyond.