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What started out as a tribute to Ari Seth Cohen’s late grandmother, Advanced Style has become one of the most influential and studied sartorialist blogs in its first seven years online. VAULT spent some time with its founder and his muses.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is usually busy on Saturdays, but today marks a special, silver-haired kind of busy. Prime Time – a new outreach program to engage older visitors with the museum – is launching, and the museum is packed with senior citizens, eager to partake in hands-on activities led by Advanced Style doyennes Debra Rapoport and Lana Turner.  “We’re going to make architectures for the body,” 69-year-old Rapoport jubilantly tells her wearables workshop participants. Since the age of three, the artist has created outlandish accessories repurposed from toilet rolls, banana leaves, plastic mesh, film ribbons and other bits and bobs that would otherwise end up in landfill. As she circles the class to inspect their recycled bracelets and necklaces taking shape, I notice that her own style carries a distinct sound. Plastic bracelets clank up and down her arms, while a necklace rammed together with punctured coffee pods bops about her chest, with scratchy foil clutching the rims. On her head rests a hat fashioned from paper towels, painted and scrunched up in the form of a papal mitre. 

Perhaps it suits, for she could very well be the priestess of Advanced Style, the celebrated sartorialist blog and now best-selling publication, colouring-activity book and documentary that chronicles the marvellous and peculiar styles of women over the age of 60. 

“Debra was one of the first women I photographed for the blog,” Advanced Style founder Ari Seth Cohen later tells me during a video call from Los Angeles. “She is a textiles professor so she uses creativity to make people feel good about themselves. She is living proof that you can grow older in a vital and creative way – she doesn’t allow herself to be a target or victim to criticism.” Rapoport has since become one of the main ambassadors for the Advanced Style movement, and often accompanies Cohen to talks and conferences that focus on quality living for seniors. 

It’s little surprise that Cohen despises the rubrics that the fashion industry places on ladies above a certain age, saying that terms like “age-appropriate clothing” and “dress for your age” are just another form of prejudice to drag females down. When I suggest an alternative motto of “dress for your stage” he rejoices: “Exactly! These women are getting dressed to please themselves! As the late Lynn Dell said in our film, ‘I am dressed up for the theatre of my life, every day’”. 

Cohen believes that social isolation and feeling ignored and irrelevant are among the biggest threats to the elderly. More than just surface styling, the Advanced Style trinity (blog, book, film) has enabled countless women to creatively express themselves and the work that they do to the world, opening up platforms for both young and old people to discuss the positive experiences of aging, and forming communities that inspire one another to celebrate being ‘over the hill’.

“It’s less about dressing a certain way, and more about living a certain way,” he says of the project, which has seen Cohen and his muses helm fashion campaigns for the likes of Karen Walker, Vogue Australia and H&M. “Look at Ilona Royce Smithkin,” he continues. “She is 93 and she paints every day and performs cabaret shows. Debra continues to create hats and does yoga all the time. When I met Lana she was giving a lecture on vintage fashion. These women work hard to remain an active part of society and continue to give back to the community. We have so much to learn from their generation.” 

As a kid growing up in San Diego, Cohen loved playing dress-up with his grandmother’s jackets and gold jewellery. “My grandmother was my best friend,” he says. “She had the most beautiful wrinkles. I remember wanting to hurry up and grow old so that I could have the confidence and knowledge that she had at 80.” After she passed away, Cohen moved to New York in 2008 and immediately realised that the city was crawling with impeccably dressed older women. He saw this as a stark contrast to the way mainstream media continued to fixate on youth and the desire to stay crease-free and dewy. Determined to present an alternative, he began asking seniors with sartorial carriage if he could take their photographs and, soon enough, his senior streetstyle blog was born. 

Even though he had no formal training in photography, Cohen managed to capture the most memorable, captivating and incandescent portraits of grey-maned, groove-faced women, dressed magnificently, proving that style and grace get better with age. While he shoots men on occasion, Cohen counters that he is “mostly drawn to women because of the social misconceptions and negativities surrounding them.” 

“A woman is usually prized for her beauty, and if she isn’t a certain look, height or weight, then she has to invent herself. The older women I’ve met are masters at accessorising, coordinating outfits and reinventing themselves. They’ve been practicing for years, it has become instinctual.” 

During Prime Time at MoMA, I seek out Lana Turner, who is at the sculpture garden holding a statuesque pose for figure-drawing students, as they attempt to sketch the gigantic parasol-boned hat orbiting her pepper hair. “When I wear this hat I cannot fit through doors,” Turner confesses to me after. “Sometimes I can get through one if I turn sideways. Getting into a cab is out of the question. So I walk a lot.”

And we do just that. The next day, Turner takes me on a walking tour through her East Harlem neighbourhood, past her local church (“I never miss Sunday worship”) and the iconic Apollo Theatre. Every few blocks, Turner is stopped by wide-smiling strangers who pay her compliments, saying her eye-catching, butter-yellow and chilli-red striped hat – with its matching dress and jacket – has made their day. “Lana stops crowds,” Cohen later confirms. “She really knows how to curate an outfit in an incredibly elegant, playful and vibrant way. When I first met her, she looked like she’d just stepped out of a 1950s magazine editorial!”

We arrive at Turner’s top-floor heritage apartment, where she unearths prized frocks, hats and gloves from her mammoth vintage wardrobe. At 65, Turner speaks eloquently and prides herself on her regal and debonair style. She hangs dresses off her chandelier “because they are works of art” and she never leaves home without sliding on gloves. She is the owner of 600 hats and houses enough little black dresses “to fill a 50-page photo-shoot”. She gets her garments altered to ensure maximum movement. “It’s important that I’m able to go swing-dancing in my outfits,” she explains. 

A realtor with creative flair, she curated a vintage fashion exhibition in an upscale 19th century townhouse she hoped to sell during the financial crisis in 2010. Finding Style in Time featured hits from her private collection and proved to be a drawcard, with over 800 people flocking to the property to view vintage wear (including a gown from the 1890s). “The Wall Street Journal even wrote about the exhibition and we attracted a buyer for the house,” Turner crows.

“I treat my clothes like living beings,” she continues. “They are, after all, vintage – they have been worn on other bodies [and] they have their own stories. When I pass these clothes on to someone else one day, they will make new experiences.”

She fans out a spinach-green velvet coat threaded with intricate beads and sequins, and motions me closer. “This looks like it belongs to you,” she decides. “You can take it home to Australia.” Taken aback by her generosity, make it clear that I couldn’t possibly accept. “Look,” she retorts, “I have a version of this coat in black, so I’m passing my green one to you. And that’s that!” Who am I to argue? I thank her and promise her, and myself, to make new stories while wearing this stunning inheritance.

Cohen, now based in Los Angeles, is currently working on his follow-up book to Advanced Style, due out in May 2016. The publication will feature essays on aging and style written by the women he has met, plus more senior street styles from his travels to London, Paris, Tokyo, Amsterdam, South Africa, Buenos Aires, Geneva, Rome and Milan. “There’s Australians in there too,” Cohen assures me, “like Lesley Crawford [an SBS stylist], Tutti Bennett [style icon and cancer survivor] and Sarah Jane Adams [a jewellery designer and ‘Adidas fashionista’ that Cohen discovered on Instagram].”

Later that evening, I hop online to trawl through Cohen’s blog, and I come across a stunning photograph he took of painter Malcah Zeldis, with pomegranate lips and a leopard-print turban. On the blog she shares a theory about outsmarting death, echoing the vivacious and larger-than-life rhetoric common among the Advanced Style ladies. It goes like this: “If you look so good, then how can you be close to death? Maybe that’s what’s behind looking good. You will outsmart death, and death will be in love with you, and not want to take you.”

Images top to bottom:
IIona Royce Smithkin, Joyce Carpati and Lynn Dell
Debra Rapoport and Lana Turner at the Museum of Modern Art
Advanced Style – Documentary Trailer
Carol Markel, Lana Turner, Joyce Carpati, Debra Rapoport
IIona Royce Smithkin
Lana Turner
Manuela Muguerza García-Moreno
Ari Seth Cohen with Mimi Weddell

Photographer: Ari Seth Cohen / All images courtesy Ari Seth Cohen