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Book Reviews Bill Cunningham’s memoir is a time capsule of the fashion industry in mid-century America

  • Title: Fashion Climbing
  • Author: Bill Cunningham
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Publisher: Penguin Random House
  • Price: $36

Most people who follow the fashion and party pages in The New York Times are familiar with the late Bill Cunningham. The legendary street-style originator, who gained popular fame via the 2011 documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, was revered for his earnest approach to covering the Big Apple’s social characters and climbers, as well as the costume changes of his city’s best dressed.

Most people, however, likely do not remember William J. That is the name Cunningham used to make his entrance onto the New York scene after the Second World War as a creator of fanciful hats and the persona at the centre of his new posthumously published memoir, Fashion Climbing.

The book doesn’t focus much on the catty gossip – or personal confessions – many hope for from a fashionable read (though the Gabor sisters do get exposed for skipping out on their tab at Cunningham’s summer boutique on Long Island).

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Read the full Style Ad­vi­sor: September 2018 fall edi­tion

But it does offer unique insight into how someone who eventually found himself in the eye of the fashion swirl started his career as a complete outsider. When he was a designer, Cunningham often felt snubbed by the same retailers and magazines that would eventually embrace him as a reporter and photographer, mostly because, he believed, his hats were too original and the fashion cognoscenti weren’t confident enough to take a chance on an unproven name or idea.

Because Cunningham wrote most of the text before he transitioned into the role of fashion documentarian, it's fascinating to read his predictions for how the industry was poised to evolve, and weigh them against what has actually changed.

Change was something Cunningham was very sensitive to, at every stage of his career; never worrying about it, but instead embracing all of its creative potential.

Fashion Climbing by Bill Cunningham with a preface by Hilton Als, $36 at bookstores or penguinrandomhouse.com.

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