What started as a blog has become something of a movement. Advanced Style’s Ari Seth Cohen and his sassy, sophisticated ladies have given a new face to fashion —an industry notorious for prizing youth above everything else. From fashion campaigns, to a best-selling book, to a new documentary, the women of Advanced Style exemplify that aging can be done not only with grace, but also with inimitable flair.
The documentary Advanced Style, which releases in cinemas this week, examines the lives of seven New York women, aged 62 to 95, whose eclectic personal style and vital spirit have guided their approach to aging. There’s the 84-year-old former Apollo Theater dancer Jacquie “Tajah” Murdoch, who finally fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming a high-fashion model by starring in Lanvin’s fall 2012 campaign. There's also the feisty, self-proclaimed “Countess of Glamour” Lynn Dell Cohen, who's been helping women find their own glamour at the vintage clothing store she owns in the Upper West Side. And there's 94-year-old Ilona Royce Smithkin, the flame-haired painter who graces the documentary’s poster, a pint-sized phenomenon who truly came into her own in her later years —this summer, she even brought her trademark hair eyelashes and cabaret act to Provincetown's Bear Week.
Out sat down with blogger Ari Seth Cohen and director Lina Plioplyte to discuss these unforgettable women of a certain age, and the lessons we can all learn from them.
OUT: What inspired Advanced Style?
Ari Seth Cohen: I started this project because I was best friends with my grandmothers. I didn’t know it would turn into a career as a fashion photographer of old ladies, that wasn’t my goal. When I first met these women and started taking their photographs on the street, I looked at them kind of as my icons. I wanted to hear their life stories and learn from [them].
Do you see them as your grandmothers?
ASC: They’re more like friends and collaborators.
Lina Plioplyte: You never feel like there’s an age gap or generation gap. They’re not stuck in grandma ways. We’ve had plenty of our share of cookies and milk, but [they’re more interested in] what’s in the street, what’s going on today, what’s art, what’s creative?
Advanced Style has changed not only both of your lives, but also the lives of these women. How does that feel?
ASC: It wasn’t my goal to make old ladies stars. [Laughs]. More so, what’s cool about it, is what they represent and how that influences other people. If we go to a screening of the film —this could be in Australia or South Africa, wherever we go— people will say, “Oh my God, I saw Ruth on your blog. I just turned 60 and I lost 50 pounds because I want to live to be her age.” I just did a screening in Washington, and this woman came up to me [and 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.” Images and stories have the power to affect people’s lives. That’s cooler than Jacquie and Tziporah [Salomon] being in the Lanvin campaign —which is still really cool.
LP: Everywhere we go with the film, people seem to be uplifted.
ASC: This film isn’t going to cure everyone’s problems, but it’s nice that it can help people lessen a bit of their fear about getting older.
Do you think gay men in particular have a special affinity for fabulous older women?
ASC: Definitely, yes. We all loved our Golden Girls, our Bette Davises...
LP: ...Mariah Careys.
ASC: [Laughs] I do love Mariah, but she’s not older. Yes, I do think there’s an appreciation of fashion, an appreciation of oldness in gay men. But, when we’ve been showing the film, a lot of older men, and my friends who aren’t gay, will see it —who I wouldn’t really expect to love these women— and they still do. It’s kind of a given that gay men will love these women. And they love gay men!
LP: Think about it, Ilona (pictured, far right) in Provincetown performing in front of all these bears. [Laughs]
What lessons did you learn from the women?
LP: Live your life. Now. No fear. Say “yes” more. They’re the ultimate New Yorkers in the way that they love the city to such a full extent of going to everything that interests them, whether it’s a textile exhibition or photographic experiment —they just say yes to everything.
ASC: I don’t know if there’s a lesson. When you’re around them, you’re able to take in their energy. I want to be as vital as them. I want to be able at 90 to still be making art and doing what I love. Not because it’s my job, because it’s something that I love to do. They’re good reminders of how to live and how to really enjoy living life. They love being here. They’re not waiting for death to come and get them. Nor do they complain. That’s inspiring. I see Ilona going to parties till midnight, and going to Fashion Week, and doing stuff that I don’t even want to do. I can’t say I’m tired anymore.
Watch the trailer for Advanced Style below:
Advanced Style opens in theaters September 26 and on VOD and DVD October 7. Go to AdvancedStyleTheMovie.com for screening times.