Arguably one of the most paradoxical phrases in the fashion lexicon tags “legend” to the anterior “fashion.” It is contradictory because fashion is ephemeral; it comes, it goes, its job is to change. But when you’re a legend you hold your ground. You stick, with resolute conviction, to the principles you develop or adopt as your own — they are unflinching, and so are you. Your values become like furniture in a room that doesn’t change. You don’t care what popular culture tells you to do, or say, or think because the beat of your drum cancels out that noise. Put simply, a legend doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. Plain and simple. You are what the legacy you’ve built says you are. Forever.
So how is it, then, that the term fashion legend is thrown around not freely, but fairly liberally? Diana Vreeland, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Patrick Demarchelier, Isabella Blow — the list of legends, both living and not, is vast.
Yesterday, The New York Times commemorated one of its own fashion legends in a tender memorial at Carnegie Hall. It was for Bill Cunningham, the famous street photographer who reported for The Times (famously submitting sometimes more than 2,000 photos a week) for nearly 40 years and passed away last June. Such important New York figures as Anna Wintour and Michael Bloomberg spoke on Cunningham’s behalf. I listened to Bloomberg share that Cunningham was part of the fabric of New York and then I remembered something Anna Wintour had said — that “we all dress for Bill.”
What a statement from a fellow legend!
I thought to myself that certainly Cunningham meets the criteria to be called a fashion legend, but casting aside the hypocrisy of the term, what makes someone legendary in fashion? Is it simply resilience? That is, the ability to hold court, to not drop out of the industry after the frills and perks have stopped working on you? Is it a title you develop only posthumously? (In my opinion, this is impossible in the era of Instagram canonization.) What must one do, really, to become a Patrick, a Diana, an Yves or a Bill?
When you look at the contribution of some of the above names, their status as legend makes sense. Diana Vreeland turned on its head the standard operating arrangement of fashion, calling such no-name, youthful creatives to the cover of her Vogue. Patrick Demarchelier developed a photography style all his own that has been often imitated, but never sufficiently replicated. Yves Saint Laurent is perhaps the first designer to have pulled such distinct reference from a culture not his own (he was extremely inspired by Morocco in the ’60s and ’70s) and Bill? Bill was the first photographer to plant himself at an intersection in New York City and to find style in the plebeians who walked to and from work every morning with no ulterior motives. The original street style photographer! Though he wouldn’t call himself that, which might be part of it — not knowing that you’re doing something revolutionary.
Legends are known for doing what they do extremely well, but there are plenty of people who are great at what they do. There are plenty of people who are great at doing lots of things. So what determines whether you will be deified? Does asking this question effectively inoculate you from joining the ranks of the greats?
Photo credits (top to bottom) Mike Coppola, Horst P. Horst, PL Gould and Vivian Fernandez via Getty Images.