Bill Cunningham Thinks the Fashion Industry Is Due for a Major Change

The legendary street style photographer opened up about the status of the industry.
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The legendary street style photographer opened up about the status of the industry.
Fern Mallis and Bill Cunningham at Fashion Icons With Fern Mallis at 92nd Street Y on September 3, 2014 in New York City. Photo: Nomi Ellenson/Getty Images

Fern Mallis and Bill Cunningham at Fashion Icons With Fern Mallis at 92nd Street Y on September 3, 2014 in New York City. Photo: Nomi Ellenson/Getty Images

While Bill Cunningham may be notoriously private — he hates the 2010 documentary about him because now he gets approached by people on the street while trying to do his job — he was anything but shy about expressing his opinions on the state of the fashion industry when he sat down with Fern Mallis for her "Fashion Icons" series at 92Y.

"I think the fashion world needs to come to grips with reality," the photog said, tearing up a little bit. "The reality is you have the whole country electronically connected. They’re educating the insides of their heads, as they should, and not [dressing] the outside with a fancy hat or a dress. Simple clothes, that's key, and I think that's what the fashion world should really think about."

Despite not having a phone himself, Cunningham is surprisingly attuned to the tech world, from which he says the fashion industry could take a lesson or two. "Look at the lines waiting to get into that Apple store on 5th Avenue!" he explained. "Do you see a line waiting to get into Bergdorfs or Saks? The future belongs to this generation and the high-tech world is it!"

Bill Cunningham works at the 39th Annual Hampton Classic Horse Show on August 31, 2014 in Bridgehampton, New York. Photo: Taylor Hill/WireImage

Bill Cunningham works at the 39th Annual Hampton Classic Horse Show on August 31, 2014 in Bridgehampton, New York. Photo: Taylor Hill/WireImage

Cunningham did not hold back his opinions on celebrity dressing, which he said more than once doesn't interest him. "Stupid red carpet," he said. "The fashion world killed itself by lending the clothes, and giving them, and then paying the celebrities to wear them!" In his opinion, their presence in the fashion world is distracting from the work of the designers.

"People should take very seriously the fact that you're being invited to view the work of artists," he said of attending fashion shows. "Think about what they're showing, look at the clothes, look at what they do for the body, that's the thing to go and study. You think I'm going there to discuss someone's sex life?"

A former fashion editor of the New York Times, Virginia Pope, made it a rule to attend the first fashion show of any new designer, and attended Cunningham's first fashion show when he had his hat business. It's a rule Cunningham tries to follow himself today, but he believes that the fashion calendar has become too crowded. "Now, there's so many new designers, take a look at this coming week," he said. "There's three different shows every hour on the hour, all in different locations. In one day, I counted seven shows in the same hour!"

Before Mallis could ask questions submitted by the audience, Cunningham mentioned he wanted to talk about the greatest fashion show he had ever seen: the 1973 Battle of Versailles. He discussed the show in moving detail for over ten minutes, becoming so emotional that he choked up describing the final look worn by Bethann Hardison. 

"That's what American fashion does best!" he finished. "Not imitate, but the simplicity, the honesty of clothes — that's what we've got to get back! That's what made America great, and what made the fashion world great."