When we think of the elderly, words such as “style” and “elegance” don’t immediately spring to mind. Yet photographer Ari Seth Cohen is singlehandedly turning the outdated notion that fashion isn’t for seniors on its perfectly coiffed head.
The photographer’s fascination with our often forgotten fashion icons was born out of his close relationship with his maternal grandmother, Bluma. After Bluma sadly passed away in 2008, Cohen honored her wish for him to move to New York.
Inspired by his new surroundings and the memory of his grandmother, Cohen began Advanced Style later that same year. Advanced Style is a blog dedicated to celebrating the vivacious fashion choices of some of New York City’s senior citizens. However, the only thing holding the would-be photographer back at that point was the lack of an actual camera…
Undeterred, Cohen simply borrowed his roommate’s camera and hit the streets. There, he started photographing the silver-haired stylistas he encountered – focusing on the colorful and wonderfully eccentric rather than the stuffy and stereotypical.
“I’d always looked to older people for inspiration,” Cohen told The New York Times in May 2016. But all the pictures he ever saw of them “were patronizing, or clinical, or depressing.” He was determined, therefore, to create a new, more accurate narrative.
And focusing on the often underrepresented demographic of the over-60s was something that resonated with people, making Advanced Style an instant runaway success. For Cohen, though, the blog was simply a celebration of, in his own words, “the fashion and wisdom of the senior set.”
Yet it isn’t always easy for Cohen to find people to photograph: his subjects, especially women, can either be too suspicious or busy to stop. “Some women say yes, and some women say no. And that’s just how it is,” he acknowledged to The Guardian in 2014.
Thankfully, Ilona Royce Smithkin didn’t turn Cohen down. She’s an artist in her mid-nineties who not only dyes her hair a striking orange, but also makes false eyelashes to match. What’s more, she proved to become something of a muse to the younger man. Indeed, Cohen began featuring Ilona both on the blog and in other material he shot.
Cohen also became a huge presence in the life of Sarah Jane Adams, a jewelry designer-turned-Instagram star. Moreover, her appearance on Advanced Style led to her being signed up to a modeling agency. “I believe Ari is the person who started this change in perception of older people,” she told the Financial Times in 2016.
And the resounding success of the Advanced Style project has meant that the fashion industry has been forced to take note. As a result, style is increasingly seen as something that transcends all generations and isn’t just reserved for the young.
Furthermore, considering how quickly America is aging, this idea has taken a staggeringly long time to take root. Indeed, according to 2012 figures from Nielsen, senior citizens are responsible for nearly half of all purchasing decisions made in the entire U.S. And yet they remain an unjustly underrepresented demographic.
And often older women get overlooked – or outright ignored – by the fashion industry, victims of an outdated mindset that values youth above all else when it comes to femininity. It’s for precisely that reason that Cohen sought to photograph mostly women. “I don’t think men have those same challenges,” he argued to The Guardian.
Meanwhile, such was the colossal success of Advanced Style that Cohen decided to take it one step further. In 2012, then, he released a book of the best images he had taken. More books, including a coloring book, followed; and Cohen then began gathering funding for a documentary.
The Kickstarter campaign for the documentary ended up raising an impressive $55,441. And this provided proof – should anyone still have needed it – that the world wanted to see more of Cohen’s elderly, stylish models. By 2014, the film was completed.
But it wasn’t purely a celebration of fashion; it was a celebration of the people involved, too. The film focused on seven stylish seniors and their fascinating stories as well as giving those individuals an outlet through which to talk about how fashion had shaped their lives.
Royce Smithkin, for example, spoke about growing up in war-torn Poland. “My childhood wasn’t a very happy one. It was a bad time. But I remember my mother always looked very nicely dressed. I was always proud of her when she brought me to school,” she elaborated to The Guardian.
Indeed, the sheer power of fashion and its ability to comfort and inspire people is at the heart of the Advanced Style project. “This film isn’t going to cure everyone’s problems,” Cohen said to OUT magazine in the run-up to the documentary’s release. “But it’s nice that it can help people lessen a bit of their fear about getting older.”
So if Cohen set out to encourage us all to embrace our age, he has certainly achieved that feat. People from all corners of the world have reached out to the photographer to tell him how his project has improved their lives – or, even better, the lives of their grandparents.
“I just did a screening in Washington, and this woman came up to me,” Cohen added to OUT. “[She said], ‘My mother had a stroke. I showed her your blog and bought her your coloring book. She’s using that as a way to get her motor skills back.’ Those are the things that we hear and we’re like, ‘Wow.’”
And as the years have marched on, the ripples of Advanced Style continue to spread ever further. In his quest to make mature models more mainstream, for example, the photographer has even shot campaigns for New Zealand designer Karen Walker featuring seniors as models. “It brings us all hope, there’s less to fear and more to look forward to,” Cohen remarked in an interview with Paper magazine. And it’s all proof that you don’t need to ditch your raddest threads when you hit 60, after all.