In recent years, the New York fashion scene has been dominated by bona fide street-style stars—be they editors, bloggers, or, in photographer (and self-described “old lady expert”) Ari Seth Cohen's case—the 50-plus set. While youth has always been synonymous with beauty and style, Cohen has proved that aging has got nothing on some women.
In 2008, Cohen moved to New York City to express himself creatively (as per his grandmother’s suggestion), and soon, the popular street-style blog, Advanced Style, was born. Cataloguing the unique style of New York City’s older demographic, Cohen found himself fascinated not with women decked in designer gear, but rather those expressing their personality through unique looks.
Over the past five years, Cohen’s blog has gained international recognition (it’s been produced into a book and coloring book), and the members of his coterie of 50-plus-year-old fashion mavens have become icons in their own right—thanks to their creatively quirky looks.
Now, for his latest venture, Cohen is putting his subjects on the silver screen with the release of the documentary, Advanced Style, an inspiring new film directed by Lino Plioplyte and premiering at Toronto’s “Hot Docs” Film Festival on Tuesday. The film, which took over three years and less than $50,000 to make, follows the daily lives of seven outrageously stylish women—from 80-year-old Joyce Carpati (a former editor at Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping) to 93-year-old Ilona Royce Smithkin (an artist and performer)—capturing their spirit, creativity, and, of course, ageless eye for style.
“The whole idea of shifting the view onto these women who are older is quite anarchic and provocative, and very much against the prevailing fashion system,” Barney’s New York’s creative director, Simon Doonan, says toward the start of the film. “If you're looking for punk rock anarchy, look at Advanced Style.”
Ilona Royce Smithkin, a 93-year-old artist—and now teacher—makes false eyelashes out of her own vibrant orange hair and has a penchant for bright colors and bold accessories. She talks about how aging has only helped—not hurt—her to become who she is. “At one time I had no self-confidence and I didn’t think I could do anything,” she says. “But seeing so much art around and seeing what I can do and what I’ve learned and represent, I am an artist.”
Jacquie Tajah Murdock, a former Apollo Theater dancer who, during the course of the film, becomes the unlikely face of longtime French fashion house Lanvin, is also a subject of the documentary. Now 84 and legally blind, Murdock reflects on her early days on stage (she was only 17 when she first performed with dance troupe Norma Miller’s Jazz Dancers) and her dreams of visiting Paris. “I said when I was 18 that I want to go to Paris—well, you can turn it around and put the eight in front and the one behind,” she laughs. “81 instead of 18.”
“I wanted to show people that aging can be a wonderful thing—that you can dress up and feel good no matter what age you are,” Cohen says in the film. “These women really challenge our notion of getting older. They really embrace their age, feel good about themselves, and every time they leave the house, they look and feel their best.”
While the movie is certainly light and heartwarming, with the topic of age also comes death. More somber moments are briefly brought to life, such as when Smithkin is shown taking care of a friend with Alzheimer’s, or when 79-year-old Lynn Dell Cohen—the outgoing owner of Upper West Side boutique Off Broadway—is seen in a Jewish Home Lifecare Center explaining that she’s had “many close calls to death, but this was the closest.” Death becomes a reality, however, when 95-year-old Zelda Kaplan, who discussing her custom-made ensembles from hand-woven African fabric in the movie, dies while sitting front row at New York Fashion Week. “I think I was born happy,” Kaplan says in the film. “I love fashion. I think good style improves the environment for everybody.”
“For her, everything was a celebration,” Tziporah Salamon reflects on Kaplan. “What a fabulous way to die—doing exactly what she loved to do, which is be out in public, be where it’s happening—certainly it was happening at the tents during fashion week—looking great, being part of the world, being part of life.”
And that's exactly what Advanced Style emphasizes. The documentary’s stars all look great and they are still actively participating in society, regardless of their ages. Many, in fact, even claim that they have become more confident and self-aware as they’ve grown older. For some, age may be hindering—but for these ladies, age is just a number. And style? It’s timeless.