June 1, 2012

Have you ever been hurt by fashion? I don’t mean physically hurt. (I’ve known the ulceric ache that results from a day in waist-binding clothes, and the high-hell throb of blood pooling in the ball of your foot.) I mean psychologically hurt. I mean the neuroses of the dressed self: insecurity, body dysmorphia, and existential questioning (answer: black turtleneck); I mean anxieties of invisibility and/or hypervisibility, of Echo and all the Narcissists; The agoraphobia of I have nothing to wear!; Histrionic performances of feminine sexuality; Dissociative identity disorders of office appropriate versus Casual Fridays; Obsessive compulsive starching and pressing.

Fashion can be ugly, and it can hurt. Fashion has a reputation for being frivolous and conceited (but, like the mean girl in highschool, also seductive and self-possessed). The industry is marked by socio-political ignorance, conspicuous consumption, and the beauty myth, on top of which is an unctuous affirmation of its own importance. Not to mention racism, sexism, ageism, and sizeism. These are the things that make so many intelligent people, often otherwise aesthetically oriented people, allergic to fashion. Even to insiders, fashion isn’t necessarily fun. Witness the cycle of self-consciousness and a judgmental gaze that can make a fashion party—a room full of people ostensibly gathered to celebrate the same thing—so dour.

My recommended treatment for the fashion that ails you is Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style, the blog, and now book, and (fingers crossed) upcoming film, about the highly developed style of the elderly set. Cohen’s project embodies everything that makes fashion wonderful—storytelling, performance, the pleasure of the textile. The women (and rare gentleman) of Advanced Style exude confidence. They smile in pictures. They aren’t posed to please but rather, embody the clothes they wear. Advanced Style‘s style is colorful and eccentric, almost costume-y at times, but it looks natural. Cohen picks subjects whose identities, owned after decades on this planet, shine through their vestments.

The new Advanced Style book, released last week by the innovative New York based publisher powerHouse Books, showcases the best of Ari Seth Cohen’s senior street style photography. Aside from a shared jubilance, Cohen’s subjects’ styles are varied. Blunt banged Lubi prefers avant-garde frocks with a minimal, Japanese sensibility. Lynn Dell is like a Fellini fatale, one of Marcello Mastroianni’s lovers from 8 ½, if she were real and alive today. Ruth, at 100-years-old, is still a proper Upper East Side lady. From the twenties through today’s teens, styles from every decade these subjects could have lived through are represented. My favorite image in the book is a close-up portrait of a woman with neon rainbow streaked hair and lines on her face, crowsfeet, and other smiling wrinkles, which run in harmony with the highlights in her hair. She looks like an older Claudia Schiffer and makes me think, “I want to be just like you when I grow up.”

You can claim to abstain from fashion, but it’s impossible. Everyone gets dressed in the morning. We get dressed for protection, modesty, and ornamentation. Unless you develop an ascetic uniform, like Steve Jobs’ blue jeans and black Issey Miyake turtlenecks, it’s hard to avoid the latter. Even the most recent nudist I encountered was wearing cool kicks (it’s New York after all, footwear is essential). Why not take joy in what we wear? The subjects in Advanced Style are at an age when it is normal to have “given up.” Instead, these mature men and women pursue the daily requirement of covering themselves as a playtime. I bet their lives are brighter for it. As the glamorous Lynn Dell, who is quoted in the book, proclaims, “We must dress every day for the theatre of our lives.”

The book is full of these mantras. “Look Good, Feel Good. Feel Good, Look Good.” “In your body is a good place to be.” “If you try to imitate too much, you will look like nothing. Never compare. You are you!” What makes style “advanced” isn’t age, the book tells us, but how the wearer develops their personal look. If you’re someone who suffers at the manicured hands of fashion, I suggest you borrow those mantras and take a cue from the wise folks of Advanced Style. Put away the Vogues and forget In Touch. Google Image search Iris Apfel, Coco Chanel, Lauren Hutton, Mary Gaitskill, Nick Wooster, Julian Schnabel, and Cornel West. Watch the documentary Bill Cunningham New York. Buy a copy of Advanced Style. Appreciate that the mean, popular girl in high school loses her charm. Fashion needn’t be reserved for the young, the skinny, the feminine. Everyday life is better when you love what you wear. That’s all that matters.

I was lucky enough to speak with Ari Seth Cohen recently about his venture. I started the interview by thanking him. Then we moved on.

What makes someone’s style advanced, beyond the grace of years?
I photograph people who are comfortable in their own skin—people who dress for themselves rather than trying to please others.

How did you select the images to be included in the book?
I went through my archive of photos and thought about which photos would reflect my message  best. I wanted the book to be a diverse range of beauty, age, and style.

Most of the subjects you shoot are from New York. How do you see advanced New York style as different than, say, older people in Italy or Sweden or Japan? Any plans for an Advanced Style world tour?
I would love to do a World Tour, maybe for the next book! Men and women in New York are very free with their fashion choices, more so than in other places that I have visited. I have found wonderful people to photograph all over the world. Each city holds its own Advanced Style waiting to be discovered.

What are some of your favorite spots in New York to scout for Advanced street style?
I like to scout all over the city. I spend a lot of time uptown on Madison, by the Met, and all around the Upper West Side.

Do you have any favorite young fashion icons? Contemporary or otherwise?
My film partner Lina Plioplyte who dresses like the Advanced Style Ladies already, Maayan Zilberman of The Lake and Star, Tavi and Kerin Rose of a-morir. Kerin is totally Advanced Style in the making.

Lastly, where’s Iris Apfel!?
I’ve only photographed Iris indoors, but she is a huge inspiration to me. I am saving her for the Advanced Style film which filmmaker Lina Plioplyte and I are hoping to complete by the end of summer. We just started a Kickstarter page for our project.

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