If you spent any time on the Fashion Week scene between the mid-'70s and 2016, you probably know who Bill Cunningham was — and delighted in seeing him whiz by on his bike, camera in hand. The late New York Times street style photographer was famous for his work and his cheery demeanor, zipping through the streets of New York City, blue jacket flapping behind him, as he chased the next beautiful outfit to photograph.
Many editors could tell you about running into Cunningham, but truthfully, most people didn't know much about him beyond his dedication to his craft and his eye for what was new and exciting in the industry. That all changed after his 2016 death.
The famously private photographer left a trail of breadcrumbs to help people understand him better in the form of an entire secret memoir. He left behind two copies of the carefully polished text, with the book's title, Fashion Climbing, written next to it, all but daring people to get to understand his point of view in a whole new way. You can finally read his words tomorrow, on Sept. 4, when Fashion Climbing (amazon.com, $18) is released, just in time for New York Fashion Week.
Before you sit down for a view of Cunningham's world, here are seven of the most surprising things we took away from his free-spirited and fashion-filled life story.
1. His family was not supportive of his stylish ambitions.
Despite having a knack for the art of fashion from an early age, Cunningham's parents were more embarrassed than anything else. When he moved away from his hometown of Boston to explore New York City, he was met with similar shame from his aunt, uncle, and cousins, whom he lived with, though he insisted they were good to him.
Eventually, his family did come to one of his shows when he was a hat designer — but it took them years.
2. He crashed the Waldorf to get a peek at Queen Elizabeth.
Yes, we're still talking about the same soft-spoken photographer here. Cunningham was so dazzled by the idea of Queen Elizabeth visiting the United States back in 1957, that he straight-up crashed her hotel to get a look at her.
Despite hundreds of police guarding the entrances, Cunningham finagled his way inside by using secret doors and gazing down at her and her diamond tiara from the high-up projection room. Impressive.
3. His journalistic career started with Women's Wear Daily — but he wasn't a huge fan of editors.
Despite being best-known as a member of the New York Times staff, Cunningham wasn't thrilled with editors or "the press," as he dejectedly called them throughout the book. Still, he had a palpable respect for WWD, where he began writing reviews of shows for them.
4. He once got punched in the face for a negative review.
Not everything about the industry was as nice as Cunningham was. Once, after writing a negative review of a Bonwit's show in Women's Wear Daily, Cunningham went to review the luxury department store's fur collection and was punched in the face by the president of the store. It left him with a black eye. The president never apologized, but Cunningham ended up suing and walked away with $300.
5. He called Coco Chanel the "Witch of the West."
Not exactly high praise. When Cunningham crossed paths with Chanel herself, she was in her 80s and still running the helm of her brand. Cunningham said she could be a "hellion on wheels" as she worked during the final moments before her collection showed.
6. His first love was hats.
Before he ever picked up a camera, Cunningham was a New York milliner who made hats that subsequently made waves. He used to design hats in all shapes and sizes (shell-shaped, fish-shaped, you name it) for extravagant parties — and even threw some of his own, which Jayne Mansfield, Rex Harrison, and apparently even Julie Andrews attended.
7. He thought women in Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco were more fashion-forward than the "society women" of New York.
Unexpected? Yes. Still shocking after his explanation? Well, no.
Cunningham felt people outside "sleek social cliques" had more fun and freedom when dressing themselves, which led to more "individually fashionable women who [were] not dominated by the rigid rules of a few leaders."
A nice note to remember as we head into New York Fashion Week.