Style that knows no age: Ari Seth Cohen on the muses of Advanced Style

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Walking down the street in New York City is always a unique experience. The clichés are true—it really is a melting pot of culture, fashion, and age. But for Ari Seth Cohen, founder of the popular blog Advanced Style, it’s also his workplace. Cohen spends his days photographing the unique and creative older set—a demographic so often overlooked in today’s society. His subjects are always impeccably dressed, often daring, and clearly confident. It’s no wonder his blog has morphed into a book as well as a soon-to-be released documentary. The trailer is almost too charming for words:

Advanced Style is out September 26, and we can’t wait to hear more about these women’s lives, inspirations and unflagging spirits. In the meantime, BookTrib had the opportunity to chat with Cohen about his project and what he’s learned from documenting the style of his elders.

BOOKTRIB: What inspired you to start Advanced Style in the first place? What drew you to the fashion of older characters in New York?

Ari Seth Cohen: I’ve always really had an affinity for older people. All of my best friends my whole life have probably been in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. My grandmothers, especially, were the ones who nurtured my creativity and taught me about fashion and culture. They inspired me at a young age to look at getting older as something really positive. My grandmother studied at Columbia University and she always told me that if I wanted to do something creative I should move to New York. She passed away in 2007, and in 2008 I moved to [the city]. Instantly I was drawn to this community of really vibrant, creative, stylish older people that I was seeing on the street. I think obviously it had something to do with my grandmother guiding me in some way. But I just started meeting all these older people and I decided to take their photos and interview them for a personal project. Then I realized that the people I was photographing really had the power to change people’s perceptions of getting older. So I decided to start the blog from there and share what I was doing with the world.

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BT: There are so many fashion blogs out there, but clearly Advanced Style immediately connected with an audience. Can you tell us a little about how the blog “took off?”

ASC: I literally borrowed my roommate’s camera—I had never taken a photo before—and just started taking photos of men and women on the street. I started the blog because I noticed a real lack of representation for older people in lifestyle, fashion and media in general. Nothing was representing this community and this demographic of people—everything was kind of clinical and negative. And so I decided to start the blog, and right away people started responding. Initially I knew that younger people would be inspired by the style of the older people I was photographing. But I started hearing from older people saying that they were no longer fearful of their age, and younger people were telling me the same thing.

I guess the big break was when The New York Times wrote a story about the blog, and that created a lot more exposure. In a way it went viral and I think it’s because images like the ones I was taking were so absent from the cultural landscape. Everything is so youth-focused, and there’s this great obsession with youth. My goal was to make aging cool. I wanted to show that there’s so much you can still do despite getting older.

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BT: What makes you choose a specific person on the street?

ASC: It can be anything from a wonderful haircut to an armful of Bakelite bracelets to the way someone is standing really confidently. I think it’s just about someone having a certain kind of presence—a strong presence, a strong sense of personal style—and something that I see in them that I know will inspire other people to look at aging in a more positive way.

BT: Is it ever difficult to find subjects? Are people always accommodating when you approach them on the street?

ASC: I’m still haunted by the images of women who’ve said, no! Every time I find someone who’s perfect for the blog and they allow me to take their photograph it’s like finding a treasure. I get so thrilled by that and my heart starts beating. Actually the most fun out of the whole project for me is going and finding people on the street. Definitely there have been times where people have said no—I did get yelled at in London one time. But in general I’ve been surprised by how open everyone is.

Because I always explain my project, they become part of this community of Advanced Style ladies who take on that message and also bring it back to their friends. It has really created a community throughout the world of older women. I think there’s a movement going on of embracing the strength of older men and women.

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BT: Do you have any favorite people that you’ve photographed or worked with more than once?

ASC: It started as a personal project, so I wasn’t getting paid to do photo shoots, and I wasn’t making a book or a film. Obviously I gravitated toward certain people and they became my good friends. But I’m always looking for more people to photograph. The women in the film were particularly open and gave me and Lina [Plioplyte], who made the film with me, a lot of access to their lives and that’s the reason we chose these specific women.

One who definitely stands out—she’s one of the stars of the film—is Ilona Royce Smithkin. She’s 94 years old and she just has this incredible energy. She started doing cabaret in her 80s. She’s always so wise and witty; even at 94 she’s still the life of the party. She walks into a fashion party at 10 p.m. and everyone looks at her and she picks up her heels and dances. For me, she’s probably one of the more inspiring women I know, and [in general] I’m so lucky and privileged to be able to spend time with all these women.

BT: You’ve written a book, and now done a documentary. How were the experiences different? Did the documentary or the book allow you more time to get to know your subjects?

ASC: I started doing the film before I started the book. In a way they’re very similar because this whole project started out as something that I wanted to do not knowing where it would lead. As I was taking photos I was approached by a publisher eventually, who asked me if I would do a book. Before then, Lina and I met in a coffee shop and admired each other’s crazy patterns. She asked if she could make videos of the women I was photographing. So we just started making videos and kept on filming and initially weren’t sure what we were going to do with all the footage except for making videos on my blog. So the documentary follows the process of what I do everyday and my work.

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BT: What do you feel these older subjects have taught you about style or life?

ASC: Because of my grandmothers, I’ve never been afraid of being eccentric or being bold with what I wear, but I think I’ve really learned to think about how I put things together. Like Ilona for instance, she’s spontaneous about how she dresses, but she always makes sure that certain colors are repeated from her head to her toe. If she’s wearing a blue scarf, she has to make sure there’s blue somewhere else in her outfit. So I’ve learned little tricks from the women.

But I think more than anything, it’s the daily inspiration of speaking to them and realizing that someone like Ilona gets up every morning at 94 and stretches. She lives up four flights of stairs and walks those every day. She has pain in her body—she’s very open about that—and doesn’t always feel good. But the determination and will and spirit of these women are incredibly inspirational. It forces me to take better care of myself and also realize that life doesn’t end at a certain age. Ilona and these women are now having, because of [Advanced Style], these lives where they have the opportunity to think about what they do, and be creative and be seen, and it has created this kind of forum for them. So I’ve taken those cues from them on how I want to live my life. Which is in a very creative, active, community-oriented fashion.

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Rachel Carter grew up surrounded by trees and snow and mountains. She graduated from the University of Vermont and Columbia University, where she received her MFA in nonfiction writing. She is the author of the So Close to You series with Harperteen. These days you can find her working on her next novel in the woods of Vermont.

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