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Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis: Bill Cunningham’s Top 10 Quotes

Bill Cunningham

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He may appear to be a man of few words, but Bill Cunningham is a master storyteller. Last night, the 85-year-old New York Times photographer took the stage at the 92nd Street Y for the latest installment of Fern Mallis‘ “Fashion Icons” series. In just under two hours, the famed lensman regaled a captivated audience with his industry tales, shed a few tears, snapped the front row and received not one, but two standing ovations. Here are the top 10 quotes of the evening. 

On photography: “Do you think I know what I’m doing out there? Of course I don’t. I let the street talk to me. If you’re not on the street, you don’t know anything.”

On bicycle safety: “When it’s a war, I’ll wear a helmet.”

On Jackie Kennedy:

Fern Mallis: “Is there any truth to the story that after President Kennedy was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy, who was a regular client at the salon, flew the red Balenciaga suit she had bought at Chez Ninon for you to dye it black? And that’s what she wore to the historic funeral?”

BC: “Yes. Was it Balenciaga? I think it was Dior. There wasn’t time to get fabric and make a new suit. So overnight we dyed it.”

FM: “Amazing story.”

BC: “No, just practical.”

On naming his hat company William J.: “My family would have been embarrassed [if I named it Cunningham]. I wouldn’t do that to them…no man in their family was going to work in fashion.”

On buying a custom made 1934 Rolls-Royce for $500: “I’m always buying a white elephant.”

On Diana Vreeland: “[Before one of her shows at the Met], she had bought one of those things for mosquitoes. But she had filled it with Chanel No 5!”

On his favorite blue jackets: “In Paris, the street sweepers wore them originally. I liked them because they were, at that time, only $20. They were made of heavy cotton and had pockets to put everything. Now, they’re $50 or $55 and made of dish cloths.”

On not cashing his checks at Details: “I didn’t take money, because I had too much fun. I enjoyed it! And I’m terrified of taking money, because then they own you.”

On red carpet dressing: “The fashion world killed itself by lending the clothes or giving them away. Who the hell is going to buy anything when you pay them to wear it?”

On the future of fashion: “The fashion world needs to come to grips with reality. The reality is you have the whole country electronically connected. They’re dressing the insides of their heads, as they should, and not the outside with a fancy hat or a dress. Simple clothes are the key…look at the lines waiting to get into the Apple store on 5th Avenue. Do you see a line waiting to get into Bergdorf’s or Saks?”