Photographer Ari Seth Cohen may only be 30 years old, but he has single handedly overturned the hierarchies of street style with his fresh approach and unlikely subjects. You won’t find Cohen chasing after the latest IT blogger or fashion editor—he’d rather document the style adventures of an overlooked segment of our population: the 60 and over crowd. On his blog, Advanced Style, the San Diego native wanders New York City on the hunt for uniquely dressed older women with advanced style to prove that, despite what the media and the fashion world would like us to believe, style doesn’t have to come with an expiration date.
“I want these older women to be role models for us on how to live life to the fullest,” explains Cohen, whose love for the mature woman’s aesthetic dates back to watching old movies and vintage shopping with both of his grandmothers as a little boy. “I was struck by the amazing style of people like Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich. I really appreciated the way everyone dressed so elegantly. I used to look at my grandmother’s old photographs growing up in the depression and everyone still looked so amazing. That was a huge influence.”
Five years since the blog launched, Advanced Style is getting the book makeover through powerHouse Books. The tome features photographs of a stylistically diverse mix of Cohen’s muses, along with inspiring tips and thoughts about style, life, and aging. In addition to a new book under his belt, Before jetting off to pick up the new bright pink suit he’ll be wearing for his book release party tonight at The New Museum, Cohen talked to us about his admiration for our elders and what today’s young gals can learn from the ladies about staying forever chic.
Your reverence for older women and their style was influenced by your close relationship with your grandmothers. How did the blog come to fruition?
I was living in Seattle, studying art history and working in galleries. Before I moved to New York, I was managing a men’s store and buying for them. As a kid, my grandmother always told me I should move to New York if I wanted to do something creative. She passed away six years ago, and that’s when I knew it was time to move to the city. When I first moved to here, I was working at the bookstore at The New Museum as a supervisor and doing my blog on my days off. I’ve always been interested in older people and their style. Right before I moved here, I saw a film called Hats Off starting this 94-year-old woman named Mimi Weddell. She was an incredibly elegant woman who never went aNew Yorkwhere without a hat or gloves. She was in campaigns for Louis Vuitton and Burberry. She started modeling and acting at 65. I got to meet her at the film premiere in San Diego. I called her as soon as I got to New York. She was really my muse. I started noticing so maNew York older people who are still active, interesting, and stylish, yet I noticed there was such a lack of imagery of older people in the media and advertising. I wanted to show the world what I was seeing. I had no clue how people would respond to it.
What kind of reaction were you getting from the women you approached on the street?
These women were surprisingly open. You expect New Yorkers not to be that friendly, but I would photograph women on the street and they’d invite me to their house. I was amazed at how open they were. Just like young people, they were so collaborative and great at networking. These women shared so much with me and trusted me. I think a big part of what I have to do is earn their trust. Not all of them first understood what a blog was. I want to bring visibility to these women who speak to me about feeling invisible after they started aging. The blog is making them feel visible again. My mom comes to visit and will spot advanced style faster than I do. She’ll go running after these ladies in the West Village screaming, “My son has a blog!” I’ll get embarrassed. Both my parents are always looking for people for me to photograph everywhere they go. My mom loves fashion.
Where do you find your subjects? What draws you to a particular person, and what turns you off?
I walk around the whole city. I want them to be pretty diverse. I go a lot on the Upper East and West Side. I even go around the East Village. I don’t usually photograph women who are dressed all in designer labels and don’t have a personal sense of style. I don’t like to photograph women who’ve had too much plastic surgery. I like to photograph women who are aging naturally. These are the women who inspire me in some way.
Have you discovered advanced style outside of New York? How much of your work is inspired by the city?
I just got back from Switzerland, Rome, and Paris, and you can certainly find advanced style everywhere. There’s a lot more here because people do feel a certain sense of freedom to dress how they want in New York. People walk the streets and everyone is out in the world. In San Diego, I may have not come across these people because everyone drives.
The fashion industry revolves around youth. It’s certainly doesn’t celebrate growing old gracefully or taking pride in growing older. What are your thoughts on how mature women are represented in the industry?
I think that when you see that elegant older woman at the shows or even older models, there’s always a good reaction to it. It’s just that there is a lack of it. It’s very strange that there’s not more older people in campaigns. They shop, too, and they don’t want to see a 15-year-old selling them a product. When older women are used, I think it makes a great impact. These women have honed their styles for so many generations and they have so much to teach us about life. I like to start with style and then really use these people as examples of how to live life to the fullest. They don’t think about fashion all day every day—it’s just a part of their life. They don’t have anything to prove to anyone; so many tell me that they wear what makes them happy. They aren’t worried about dressing for a man, woman, or a job—they are dressing for themselves. They are fearless and don’t really care what people think.
Yes, it’s so striking how so many of them are so daring and experimental with their style choices. What can young women learn from them?
To really trust yourself and develop a personal sense of style. It’s not about relying on trends. Dress to please yourself. It’s about embracing who you are, what looks good on you and wearing it with confidence.
What do you see in older people that most of your peers today don’t?
[Young people] are so interested in ourselves. These older women, compared to the younger generation, are more aware of themselves and have a lot to share. When you’re young, you really get caught up concentrating on success. There are a lot of prejudices against older people. We tend not see the value in relationships with older people because our culture is so focused on youth. When you start looking outside of that, it can change.
Think you’ll ever succumb to shooting a younger crowd?
It’s really not what I’m interested in. I’m not sure if everything I’ll do in the future will have to do with fashion, but I always want to work with older people in some capacity. I appreciate style, but fashion is not my main interest.
Has your experience with the blog changed your view of getting old? Do you feel older than you are?
I don’t necessarily feel older than I am. These women don’t feel as old as they are. Hanging out with them is like hanging out with some of my friends. I have a 100-year-old friend that I go to lunch with, and It’s hard to believe she is that age. It’s not that I’m looking forward to getting old; it’s more that I’m not afraid of getting older. It’s going to happen—we are all going to grow older. The ladies are examples of how I want to get older and take care of myself when I’m that age.