Bill Cunningham: Multimedia Man

by Jay Ruttenberg

Still from "Bill Cunningham New York"

Still from "Bill Cunningham New York"

For the fourth Fashion Projects print issue (Fashion Projects #4, 2013), Jay Ruttenberg wrote about how Bill Cunningham's work foreshadowed today's multimedia journalism.

Recent years have not exactly been a walk in the park for print journalists, a comically beleaguered species plagued by technological hurdles both real and imagined. Yet of all the indignities the modern newspaperman faces, perhaps the most absurd has been the lunge toward corny multimedia reporting. Publishers love to trumpet their hyperactive ventures into unfamiliar mediums. But from a reader’s perspective, most of this content proves inane. Wading into the website of even the strongest magazine or newspaper can be entering perilous territory: Music journalists natter endlessly over streamed songs. Slideshows tick on interminably, like the unedited vacation photos of a bore. Pasty film critics surface onscreen as if trapped by the light of day. Gifted journalists turn up in wacky videos that can verge on hack comedy routines.  

Of course, in rare instances this multimedia content can prove riveting. One suspects that as publications open their ranks to a generation of journalists who came of age under the Internet’s spell, such reporting will flow more naturally alongside its print foundation. In the meantime, readers must make due with sporadic triumphs. And when it comes to the realm of the web extra, few journalist heavies flourish like Bill Cunningham, the famed New York Times fashion photographer. 

Cunningham is an unlikely master of this medium. He is in his 80s—a dinosaur even by Times standards—and a suspected Luddite wed to actual film. He is said to have come by his Times web segment, a spinoff of his weekly On the Street article, reluctantly. His bedrock remains the two columns he mans in the Sunday Styles: the print version of On the Street (a patchwork of his street fashion pictures) and, to a lesser extent, Evening Hours (the society photos that encompass his less exciting beat).

Still from "Bill Cunningham New York:

Still from "Bill Cunningham New York:


On the Street is an unusually whimsical column—among the quirkiest and most personal features in the Times. Both its print and web versions are devoted to the photographs Cunningham takes of women (along with the occasional man or dog) stepping out in Manhattan, generally in parts north. Each column centers around a loose trend that develops in Cunningham’s eye as he putters around town on his bicycle: a sudden wave of plaids, vests, shirtdresses, stripes, young people walking the High Line’s ad hoc catwalk, Upper East Side dowagers who have made bold millinery selections, or women emulating Holly Golightly. In the paper, the pictures run small—he squeezes over 20 shots into half a page—with no captions or IDs. A brief paragraph at the center explains the week’s theme with classic Times sobriety. “Echoes of Ms. Hepburn’s boat necks are reappearing,” the Breakfast at Tiffany’s column states. “One wondered what Holly would look like today.” 

The multimedia version of On the Street takes this framework and blows it up. As the same photographs progress in a slideshow, Cunningham speaks of his week’s gleanings in a funny voice juiced with an old Boston accent and the infectious glee of a cultural enthusiast. “Something mahvelous has been happening when I’m out photographing people going to work on Fifth Avenue,” his Holly Golightly segment begins. “I saw young kids leaning against Tiffany’s façade, and they were having breakfast. And I thought, Wait a minute! … Look at these people! They’re reflecting Holly Golightly, 50 year later. It was very curious! And then I started to wonder, Well, what would the present-day Holly Golightly wear?” As the segment ticks on, he posits about a contemporary Holly’s continued affection for black while commenting on the specific looks of select subjects. 

The photographer delivers these pieces with a charming off-the- cough air. Apparently, this is no put-on. In Bill Cunningham New York, Richard Press’s fine documentary about the photographer that opened at Film Forum last year, Cunningham is depicted taping his weekly segment. He sits at a table, takes a few seconds to gather his thoughts, and then starts riffing into the microphone in apparent stream of consciousness. Whereas at other points of the movie the photographer is portrayed torturing his designer with painstaking layout decisions and deadline-bending edits, he approaches the online narration nonchalantly, as if he is gossiping with a friend. The effect is wondrous: Suddenly, the website of the world’s greatest news organization appears hijacked by an elderly eccentric, sounding off in a highly idiosyncratic manner about his field of expertise. In discussing his pictures, the photo journalist becomes part professor, part artist, part radio DJ, and part town nut. Digesting the segment is a wholly unique experience. 

Perhaps more pertinently, with his web columns the octogenarian achieves a goal that has eluded sundry younger journalists, availing himself of new technological possibilities without abandoning his original print mission or submitting to wanton Internet glitz. Rather, Cunningham uses the web to illuminate—and, arguably, improve upon—his work for the newspaper. The On the Street columns that run in the Sunday Times (and are faithfully archived on the website alongside the videos) speak to the fashion cognoscenti. To readers such as myself, unversed in the trade, their significance can grow fuzzy: What, exactly, unites these photographs? Why does it matter that this hodgepodge of Midtown office-workers are wearing scarves? Aside from the fact that they appear to be loitering outside of Tiffany & Co., how are these women channeling Truman Capote? It is with his web performances that Cunningham draws out the map. Within a few minutes, even a fashion ignoramus fully understands the week’s spread of photographs and is dosed with the photographer’s teeming zeal for his subject. The segment offers the perfect application of a multimedia feature. It is cultural criticism at its absolute finest.

Fashion Projects # 4 on Fashion Criticism -- Out Now!

We are thrilled to announce the publication of Fashion Projects #4,  available for purchase here and in specialized newsstands and bookstores.

This issue is devoted entirely to the subject of fashion criticism—the first such study devoted to the cultural field. It features extended interviews with leading practitioners of fashion criticism including W editor Stefano Tonchi, International Herald Tribune critic Suzy Menkes, The New Yorker’s Judith Thurman, New York Times writer Guy Trebay, and Robin Givhan, the first fashion critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

Table of Contents

Editorial Letter

Transdisciplinary Practices: An Interview with Stefano Tonchi by Francesca Granata

Fashion Criticism—A Critical View: An Interview with Robin Givhan by Michelle Labrague

This Is Not a Fashion Critic: An Interview with Guy Trebay by Jay Ruttenberg

“Women’s Work”: An Interview with Judith Thurman by Francesca Granata

Bill Cunningham Multimedia Man by Jay Ruttenberg

Fashion Criticism as Political Critique: An Interview with Lynn Yaeger by Sarah Scaturro

The Critic as Artist: An Interview with Mariuccia Casadio by Marco Pecorari

On Fashion Futures: An Interview with Suzy Menkes by Lucy Collins

Fashion Criticism Panel: A Report and Recording of the Event

by Gisela Aguilar From left Francesca Granata, Robin Givhan, Guy Trebay and Stefano Tonchi. Photograph by Susana Aguirre.

For more reports on the panel, also see "Fashion critics defend their craft" by Kira Goldenberg in the Columbia Journalism Review, as well as "Fashion Criticism: No Respect!" in

In celebration of the fourth issue of Fashion Projects, a panel discussing the current state of fashion criticism was held on March 12, 2013 at The New School. The panel, moderated by Francesca Granata, Assistant Professor of Fashion Studies at Parsons the New School for Design and editor of Fashion Projects featured three distinguished fashion critics, Robin Givhan (the first fashion critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize), Guy Trebay (culture and style reporter for the New York Times), and Stefano Tonchi (the editor-in-chief of W magazine), all of whom were also interviewed for the concurrent issue of Fashion Projects.

The frank conversation took many directions by addressing a number of otherwise avoided topics within the fashion press, from the struggle for fashion writing to be considered a legitimate topic of discussion within established periodicals due to its prescribed association to the feminine realm, to the cultural valence of aesthetics in America versus Europe and how this difference manifests itself in each culture’s appreciation or understanding of fashion. Trebay reminisced on a pre-millennial era when the fashion scene belonged to a small, contained world and where the knowledge of this niche community was not widely dispersed as it is today. Stemming from observations he made in his Fashion Projects interview with Jay Ruttenberg, Trebay remarked that the cultural force of fashion catapulted quickly after 2000 through strategic moves by the few multinational corporations that monopolized the fashion industry. Fashion stars were churned out, runway shows become these theatrical spectacles, and with the aid of digital media, the fashion scene became a globalized attraction. Givhan added that the alliance between Hollywood and the fashion industry has intensified the public’s interest in all things concerning fashion, yet she lamented that this now symbiotic partnership has damaged the credibility of the industry. As such, much of the fashion content published is dominated by celebrity and consumer driven stories that bank off the entertainment value of fashion while doing little to enlighten readers about its intricacies and creative nature.

The discussion brought to the fore a highly debated phenomenon amongst contemporary fashion journalists – the emergence of fashion bloggers. Indeed, the public access and participatory nature of digital media has opened the floodgates to an exorbitant amount of fashion interpretations, criticisms, and narratives, but it is precisely this lack of moderation that concerns the panelists. Between the three fashion critics there was an overall less than sanguine opinion of the fashion conversations found online. Givhan and Tonchi implied that the overt marketing objectives of certain popular fashion blogs compromised the ethics of journalism in that fashion houses and brands utilized these online personalities as PR tools, often times flying them out to Fashion Week or gifting them merchandise to promote on their personal blogs. In regards to the writing found in these digital spaces, Trebay and Tonchi not so subtly stated that the majority of the fashion conversations on blogs lacked a “compelling” factor and were subpar in that frequently the references to fashion history were inaccurate or the observations contributed no original perspectives to fashion discourse. Pointing to the main difference between print and digital media, Givhan observed that online there was no such thing as a correction – mistakes were rectified as “updates.” She went on to explain that because the barrier to entry is so low with digital media, Internet culture has cultivated a value to be placed on timely delivered and easily digestible content rather than well-researched information.

The panel ended on a more personal note with a question from the audience asking the critics to reflect on peers whom they admired. Givhan praised the author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell as well as The Wall Street Journal’s fashion critic Teri Agins. Tonchi paid tribute to his fellow Italians, the late fashion writer and style icon Anna Piaggi and the author and Vogue Italia art and fashion critic Mariuccia Casadio. For Trebay, the work of author and fashion historian Anne Hollander was paramount in cultivating his perspectives on the intimate relationship between the body and clothing. Ultimately, the panelists’ critiques and observations advocated for fashion to be integrated and accepted as a part of a more informed cultural dialogue. Perhaps, the takeaway from this critical discussion could be best summarized by Tonchi’s obvious yet critical advice for the future generation of aspiring fashion writers in the audience – know your history!

Gisela Aguilar is completing her MA in Fashion Studies at Parsons the New School for Design. Her thesis explores the evolving modes of consumption and production of fashion discourse specifically within print magazines and online fashion media.

A Panel on Fashion Criticism featuring Stefano Tonchi, Robin Givhan, and Guy Trebay to celebrate the new issue

by Francesca Granata

NB: Change of Room Update: Due to high demand, we changed the location to the Theresa Lang Student Center at 55 West 13th on the second floor. Again to RSVP, please visit eventbrite (more seats have been added!).

Coming up this Tuesday March 12th from 6:00 to 7:30 pm in the Theresa Lang Student Center at 55 West 13th Street at Parsons the New School for Design is a panel on fashion criticism to celebrate the new issue of Fashion Projects on the same topic. The panel features Robin Givhan (the first fashion critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize), Stefano Tonchi (editor-in-chief of W magazine) and Guy Trebay (New York Times culture and style reporter) and will be moderated by me.

If interested, please RSVP here as space is limited.

The issue, the journal’s fourth print edition, features interviews with Givhan, Tonchi, and Trebay as well as Judith Thurman (New Yorker), Suzy Menkes (International Herald Tribune), and other leading fashion critics. Praised by the Columbia Journalism Review for covering “the discipline, accessibly, from an academic perspective," it includes contributions from alumni of Parsons MA Fashion Studies and MA in the History of Decorative Arts and Design. It was designed by Sarah Smith, a graduate of Parsons BFA in Communication Design.

The panel is made possible by the generosity of the School of Art and Design History and Theory and the MA Fashion Studies.

Fashion Projects #4 Editorial Letter

by Francesca Granata

This issue explores fashion criticism through a series of interviews with leading contemporary fashion critics. It was conceived as the result of a genuine curiosity to delve into such a rich yet understudied area of culture—a curiosity which is in part personal. The other member of my household—Fashion Projects contributor Jay Ruttenberg—worked as a music critic for the best part of his 20s and 30s and, thus, discussions about the way in which certain areas of culture are so extensively covered vis-à-vis others (as well as more general discussions of the changing face of journalism) made for f requent dinner conversation. It seemed to me that, in the last decade, fashion criticism has been going through a phase of legitimization that other realms of popular culture criticism, such as rock and film criticism, had undergone decades earlier,when critics such as Greil Marcus,Robert Christgau, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris emerged.What also made this issue particularly timely is that with the establishment of fashion as an academic field of study, one runs the risk of forgetting the important work done by critics, who often represent the first line of scholarship on a subject.

This issue does not aim to provide an exhaustive look at contemporary fashion criticism, and is clearly New York–biased, however, common threads do arise. One of the recurrent themes that transpires is fashion criticism’s struggle for legitimization. As Robin Givhan, previously of the Washington Post and currently at the Daily Beast, points out, “The fashion industry is a victim of terrible sexism,” which comes “from both men and women.” Significantly,  Givhan was the first fashion critic to ever receive the Pulitzer Prize—something which only happened in 2006. Perhaps more problematic was the statement that the Puli tzer released in conjunction with her award, claiming that Givhan’s writings, “Transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism”—thus implying, unwittingly, that fashion resides outside the realm of culture.

The relatively low status of fashion criticism was brought up by a number of those interviewed and is reflected in its history. Although the New Yorker had writers covering fashion from its inception in 1925 (the witty Lois Long), the NewYork Times didn’t use bylines systematically for its fashion coverage until the 1950s, when Carrie Donovan began writing about the subject regularly for the paper. Most significantly, the Times did not attribute the title of critic to a fashion writer until 1994, when it coined the title for Amy Spindler.

Current New Yorker writer Judith Thurman points out that although fashion criticism’s relative lack of status can be partially traced to its association with the feminine, there is something culturally specific to the phenomenon. This resistance toward fashion, she adds, is an “American puritanical thing,” which has to do with the “Eros of fashion and the relation between fashion and sex.” The New York Times writer Guy Trebay seconds this sentiment regarding the place of fashion criticism while underlining how things have changed with the increased importance fashion occupies within newspapers and general interest magazines. This increased attention to fashion mirrors Trebay’s own career. A cultural critic at the Village Voice for a number of years, he began writing about fashion regularly only later in life, when he moved to the Times as an extension of his interest in city life. The relevance of fashion to contemporary culture and to processes of identity-formation is a leitmotif of the issue. It is brought up by Thurman, who stresses how fashion is “a language dealing with identities,” while Trebay remarks that fashion is “about the other and requires social interaction to get off the ground.” Discussing her own idiosyncratic way of dressing, the former Village Voice critic and current Vogue contributor Lynn Yaeger remarks that “the way that we present ourselves to the world comes from a very deep psychological place.”

A different approach, which perhaps more closely mirrors art criticism, is discussed by Vogue Italia writer Mariuccia Casadio as well as Stefano Tonchi—the current editor-in-chief of W magazine, who previously edited the New York Times’s T Magazine. Both discuss fashion’s interaction with greater visual and material culture, placing fashion on a continuum with contemporary art, design, and architecture. This approach seems culturally specific judging from Tonchi’s early editorial work on Westuff, as wellas his lesser-known work as a curator (in collaboration with Maria Luisa Frisa), and the fact that Casadio occupies the unique position of both art and fashion critic.

Other recurrent points of discussion are the new temporalities brought about by changes in communication and the advent of new media, which ultimately reflect the increased tempo of the fashion industry itself. Yaeger discusses the dissociative effect of working simultaneously with different temporalities: in the present time when writing for online media and months into the future when working for print magazines. Another issue that is intertwined with new technologies is one of ethics. As the International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes points out, as the lines between editorial and advertising content become more and more tenuous, in part due to the advent of blogs and social media, how do we assure the integrity of the information we consume? Perhaps the most interesting theme that arose amongst discussion of new media is the visual nature of the new forms of journalism—something that fashion criticism is well-suited to develop, as fashion magazines historically have beenvisually driven. (The development of multimedia platforms was discussed in the second issue of Fashion Projects by Penny Martin, then editor-in-chief of SHOWstudio, a pioneer in such arenas.) This issue, our fourth, discusses the less likely success story of Bill Cunningham. The octogenarian photographer has flourished in the new media world, partially thanks to the simplicity and improvisational quality of the online version of his “On the Street” column.

Hopefully, the advent of new technology will coexist and build upon, rather than diminish, the importance of language and of writing, which perhaps becomes more evident when one inhabits (as I have for some time) a language other than one’s own and thus longs to reconnect with what Casadio calls “the magical power of the word.”