Dressed with Advanced Style
Ari Seth Cohen’s blog, Advanced Style, has evolved into a string of best-selling books and a documentary feature inspiring women to be stylish at any age.
Ari Seth Cohen recently approached a fabulously dressed older woman on the street, asking if he could take her picture. He noted how great she looked, and that, to him, the style of older women is far more interesting than, say, teenage models. The woman, who happened to be a stylist, told him his project sounded a lot like a well-known website called Advanced Style—a blog that documents and celebrates the styles of women in their 60s and up. “You should hear about this Ari Smith Cohen guy!” she said. Cohen replied, “You mean Ari Seth Cohen? That’s me.” She knew his name (sort of), just not his face, and she had started her first Instagram account because of his site.
Cohen laughed while recalling the incident—one that proves in the world of senior fashion, Cohen is still a singular voice. When people think of style over 60, they think of Cohen, even as the rest of the fashion world has caught on that advertising and runway shows shouldn’t be confined to the very young.
Advanced Style is often credited with kick-starting the trend in recent years: Celine’s ad campaign featured Joan Didion and Saint Laurent tapped Joni Mitchell. Beyond celebrity names, older models have been in demand based on appearance alone, in lookbooks for the Row—the upscale line by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen—featuring Linda Rodin, and in the Fall/Winter 2012 campaign for Lanvin, which used Jacquie Tajah Murdock, in her 80s, and Tziporah Salamon, in her 60s. (All of whom have been regulars on Advanced Style.) Brands like Karen Walker have also reached out to Cohen directly to shoot eyewear and jewelry campaigns. The blog ballooned into a career for Cohen as a chronicler of stylish aging, in the form of two coffee table books and a documentary film.
Wearing midnight-blue glasses, a Western-style shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat, Cohen, who is in his 30s, spoke about how he came to start the blog while sitting in the courtyard of his place in Los Feliz. Cohen moved to Los Angeles two years ago to be closer to his family. He grew up in San Diego, and describes his grandmother, a librarian, as his best friend, as well as a style maven.
“My grandma’s generation lived in a time when clothes had to do with elegance and quality. They were making these clothes in smaller quantities. Fast fashion didn’t exist,” he explained. “That classic elegance seems specific to that generation of maybe 75-plus. Unless someone really loves vintage clothing, you don’t see it as much.”
After his grandmother’s death, he followed her advice and moved to New York City, where she had gone to college and always urged the art-history major to move—that is, if he wanted to do something creative.
“I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do in New York,” he says, of arriving in his 20s. Once there, he quickly noticed the many well-dressed, stylish older women who walked the city streets, and began to photograph them—in part, an homage to his grandmother, whose guidance he missed as he adjusted to the city.
“It started as something personal to me,” Cohen says of the early days of the blog. “I was so lost without her.”
Soon Cohen had found dozens of women with, what he termed, “advanced style,” such as Iris Apfel, Joyce Carpati, Rodin, Murdock, and many more. Cohen focuses on people who are more than 60 years old, “but I always prefer older!” he adds with a smile. Beyond sharing a love of style, Cohen found a community.
“All these women came into my life,” Cohen said. “I wanted to present something different. I didn’t know it would be a career for me.”
His muses range from former magazine editors, dancers, models, and singers to interior designers, vintage-store owners, and artists. Cohen’s blog came of age in the late 2000s. As peers like the Sartorialist or Man Repeller began to highlight everyday street style for aficionados of all ages, Cohen had his eye exclusively trained on senior citizens.
“I wanted a strong visual representation of older people that was very different than what I saw when I would do a Google search,” Cohen said, of trying to find others out there photographing older people’s style choices. “It was condescending, patronizing, clinical. There weren’t many positive, inspiring images.”
Cohen is quick to mention he studied art history, not fashion—and while style is what made his name, it’s not where his interests started.
“Style was a way to bring me in visually, but it was more about their spirit,” Cohen said of his models. “They affect me very deeply. So the fact that it has a wider effect on people—I don’t know if it’s surprising, but it’s gratifying.”
Unexpectedly, the high-fashion world—with its long-entrenched history of young models—took note.
“Fashion is always focused on what’s new; that’s just what it is. I never set out to make an impact on the fashion world,” he said. “That was my least concern.”
His first book, Advanced Style, came out in 2012 and documents some of his favorite looks in a large, coffee-table book. It was followed by 2016’s Advanced Style: Older and Wiser. The looks range from casual elegance to rainbow-colored ensembles. A fur-lined stole and bandanna? Check. A matching red-and-black head-to-toe ensemble made of fabrics found while doing humanitarian work in Africa? Check. And in between the two projects, Cohen was part of a documentary devoted to the ladies of Advanced Style. The film tracks a day in the life of some of the blog’s New York City heroines.
As the late style maven Lynn Dell Cohen says in the film, “Fashion says, ‘Me too.’ Style says, ‘Only me.’”
Cohen’s search for style now brings him all over the world: He had recently gone to Portugal to photograph and also noted how Australian older women have the best style. “They’re not afraid of color,” he says. “I’ve been to Sydney a few times, and some of my favorite women I photograph live there.”
Though his projects have been described as revelatory and even as “punk rock” by style expert Simon Doonan, Cohen emphasizes that the goal is to be relatable. (After all, what high-school student can actually afford Karen Walker’s $300 Moon Disco Superstars sunglasses?) The message has been received by an even wider audience. The other day, Cohen noted, he saw one of his style mavens, Ellen Jamison, in a Bank of America ad campaign. And Debra Rapoport, a regular on his blog, has modeled for Kmart.
“People tell me, ‘Your project has changed the way older people are shown.’ There’s still a stereotype of the little old lady. Now it’s vibrant and vital. And less invisible.”
Another change—of course, as Cohen’s blog has grown up—has been the explosion of social media since 2008. Today, Advanced Style boasts more than 200,000 Instagram followers, though Cohen doesn’t use the medium on a personal level. He gets numerous requests via his official Facebook and Instagram accounts from stylish women, and many women he photographs have garnered followings in their own right through the platform—despite the mediums’ focus on youth culture.
“There’s so much visual stimulation there to be affected by,” Cohen said of social media. “We need a broad range of icons. In some ways, some of social media can make you feel really bad about yourself, but it can also allow you to find people who inspire you and who remind you of yourself. These women are out there representing. They’re proud. Older women can look at that and feel good about getting older.”
Though he calls LA home, he goes to New York once every few months to catch up with his ladies and meet new people. He noted that Los Angeles has been an interesting counterpoint to his work, given the city’s cultural obsession with anti-aging and the entertainment industry. “I have nothing against plastic surgery,” Cohen said with a laugh. “But I also like to show aging gracefully. It’s a lot harder to find here.”
And while Cohen got his start on the streets of New York, essentially an urban runway, he finds that he has to be craftier about scouting in Southern California. “I’ve still found a few people on the street,” he notes. “I once had to turn my car around because I found a lady at the bus stop.”In Los Angeles, in comparison to other locales, women tend to dress “more hippie, chic, lighter,” as well as in more color. Through a book party in Pasadena, he met a group of stylish women who slowly introduced him to women with great style all over the city.
For his next project, Cohen will focus on advanced-style couples—both those who have been together for decades and who have found love later in life.
He was inspired to begin the project after a friend suggested he meet a couple, Mort and Jenny, in San Francisco, who came of age in the hippie generation and who have been together for around 50 years. “The way they looked was just incredible, but when I met with them, it was their story, their connection,” Cohen said. “They truly were soul mates.” He showed images to friends soon after, who claimed they were among their favorite of Cohen’s images ever.
The book will not just focus clothes and accessories but share tips about, “the secret to navigating relationships,” he said. In a similar impulse to his projects on style, he thinks of the series as something inspiring to younger people. “It makes people hopeful for their own future with their partners,” Cohen said. “Relationships, and even marriage today, are so disposable.”
A few days after our chat, Cohen was off to Rome and Palermo to look for couples. Cohen essentially summarized his mission as making people think differently about beauty. The ideal response to reading his blog? “I can’t wait to be older,” he says.
“Have an accessory. I bike everywhere…people see you. I kind of show off my outfits on my bike. I do not wear a helmet and I should wear a helmet…but every outfit for me has a hat!”
“Sometimes I’m building one outfit for seven years…if the painting isn’t finished, I don’t take it out into the world.”
“In Milan, [at 16] I got my first sense of style. There were women who came out in the morning wearing a beautiful suit, just a suit, a lovely sweater, and a pair of pearls. I thought, That’s me…”
“Fashion is about trends. I don’t find it very challenging to go to the stores and just buy the latest trends.”
Ilona Royce Smithkin
“There is no time limit to anything. When you look good, you look good.”
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