ALL GROWN UP

05.14.12

Advanced Style: An Ode to Old Lady Chic

Inspired by his fabulous grandmother, Ari Seth Cohen started a blog devoted to stylish older women. Now the project is a book—and the fashion world is taking notice.

Ruth, a 100-year-old Pilates addict, always dresses her best. “You never know whom you may meet on the way to the mailbox,” she says. Alice Carey, a red-haired author in her early sixties, is partial to structured menswear. And then there’s Beatrix Ost, the elegant 72-year-old with a shock of blue hair, whom Mary-Kate and Ashley have labeled the muse for their brand, The Row.

These ladies—and many more—are the unlikely stars of Advanced Style, the popular blog devoted to pictures of stylish older women, which this month becomes a book. “Age is so hard-earned,” Ost tells The Daily Beast, “it has to be celebrated.”

Indeed, as Advanced Style: The Book hits shelves, suddenly it seems that, in fashion, it’s the older the better. Marc Jacobs dedicated his last collection to chic mature women, citing inspiration from Advanced Style and matronly fashion legends such as Gloria Vanderbilt, Cindy Sherman, and Anna Piaggi. Meanwhile, 90-year-old Iris Apfel has built a global empire in the past year with a line of cosmetics for MAC, a collection of jewelry for HSN and Alexis Bittar, and now, a line of eyewear for Eyebobs.

“There’s an increasing appreciation for the grown-up in society,” says Billy Norwich, a contributor to Vogue and author of an upcoming novel My Mrs. Brown, about a fashionable older woman. “We will always have “the kid” —the glamour girl, the starlet. But now, there’s a need for an elegant grownup to anchor the hysteria of fashion and style.”

Coming at a time when the thrilling yet illogical style of The Man Repeller blankets the streets, the success of Advanced Style may well be a testament to a hunger for grownups. The blog offers a romanticized view of the overlooked men and women who blanket the streets of New York, too often evading the prying lenses of “street style” photographers. These are older New Yorkers for whom style is a daily adventure; for whom a trip to the dentist or the grocery store is better than any runway. As Linda, who is also featured in the book, puts it: “When you are younger, you dress for other people. When you are older, you dress for yourself.”

The mastermind behind Advanced Style is Ari Seth Cohen, a 30-year-old from San Diego whose childhood best friend was his grandmother, a librarian named Bluma Levine. “My tastes were largely shaped through excavations of her dresser drawers filled with dazzling vintage jewels and old photographs,” Cohen writes in the book’s introduction. Bluma planted in her grandson the idea that “old wasn’t a bad word” —and that everything creative was happening in New York. So Cohen followed his grandmother’s advice, landing there in 2008. He was instantly struck by the fantastic style of the men and women he saw on the street— somehow both adventurous and effortlessly classic. He began approaching them, asking to take their pictures. Soon Advanced Style was born.

The book elaborates on the blog’s concept by simultaneously exposing our insecurities about aging and rejecting them. It’s also a reminder that classic style still exists, un-eroded by the temptations of seasonal trends. As such, you won’t see this season’s Stella McCartney wave dress on these pages, or Alexander Wang’s new palm-tree-print pants. Cohen says he steers clear of trendy women who haunt the designer shops on Madison Avenue. Instead, his subjects are individualists.

Apfel is a prime example of the independent streak that older women seem to wear most comfortably. Thanks to her eccentric style, the nonagenarian designer is worshipped by men and women of all ages and reaping the rewards through lucrative contracts. Recently asked by Lindsay Lohan to be her style mentor, Apfel declined. “I can’t tell people how to have style,” she told The Telegraph. “You have to learn who you are first and that’s painful.”

Another champion of age diversity in the fashion world is Alexis Bittar, a jewelry designer based in New York. His ad campaigns have featured several mature women—including Joan Collins, Lauren Hutton, and Absolutely Fabulous’s Joanna Lumley—who, he says, are more accessible to older luxury consumers than younger models. “I’m surrounded by a lot of women who have warped vision of themselves at this point,” Bittar says. “They’re embarrassed about their age. And it’s really fucked up that they’re looking at a retouched image of a 19-year-old selling a product to a 40- or 50-year-old.” Bittar says that his ads have been enormously popular, and that he’s gotten many mash notes since switching to older women. Still, he asks, “Isn’t it weird that it’s provocative to use a mature woman in advertising?”

Of course, it’s unclear if these celebrations of mature women in fashion are reflecting a true cultural shift in attitudes. Ironically, Marc Jacobs’s Fall 2012 collection, which he explicitly labeled as an ode to ladies who “were becoming more flamboyant with age,” made headlines for using models under the age of 16 during a runway show, an open violation of CFDA regulations.

 “I think it’s great that designers are applauding and acknowledging our demographic,” says Beverly Johnson, now 59, who was the first African-American to make the cover of American Vogue. But, she says, “We are still a society where youth is what is popular.”
 
Advance Style may leave its mark yet. Lauren Santo Domingo is a Vogue editor who now runs Moda Operandi, a shopping service that allows users to pre-order styles from the runway. “Personally, I can’t wait to be old!” she writes in an e-mail. “But please, I have no plans to be boring.”