Leanne Delapp Gets Advanced
Ari Seth Cohen has made a career out of an unusual niche: old ladies – though he would never use a word so crass as “old,” tending instead toward euphemisms such as “silver-haired set.” His blog, Advanced Style, proposes that fashion trends trickle down from older to younger.
“When I moved to New York, I started to walk. Then I began to carry a camera because I kept finding these incredible women, older women, dressed so fabulously, so exuberantly.”
He concluded that “no one really focuses on older people,” in a city where the beauty of youth is the lingua franca. “But the more women I spoke to on the street, the more I became convinced that the young were learning their style from their elders.”
The site is a gallery of what he calls advanced glamour, portraits of senior style-setters often with the 29-year-old Cohen seated beside his subjects.
Cohen follows in the footsteps of legendary New York street style chronicler Bill Cunningham, whose candid and anonymous snaps are gathered in the Times‘ Sunday Styles. The 82-year-old Cunningham is having quite a moment with the release of a documentary about his life’s work. Then there is The Sartorialist, Scott Schuman (featured on Grooming, page 50, in the June issue of Zoomer), and his European girlfriend-counterpart, Garance Doré, whose blogs embrace street snaps of the young and quirkily fashionable. But there is a coldness to the anonymity: many a Cunningham or a Schuman subject either doesn’t know the camera is tracking them or adopts the impassive deadpan that seems to be the chic thing to do.
But Cohen’s portraits have a charm that cracks some new cool code: his subjects are smiling, sometimes showing off, always with a nod and a wink.
“These are vital, artistic people. They grew up in an era of greater elegance and they pay attention to the details, the hats, the capes, the scarves. But the real secret is that they have a freedom to dress just for themselves,” he says. “A freedom from the worry of dressing for other people. We need to learn that from them, to be unselfconscious.”
His regular ladies have become stars. We have Lynn Dell, The Countess of Glamour. Dell has owned a ladies’ dress shop, Off-Broadway Boutique, for 42 years. “I dress for the theatre of life,” she says. Dell has been photographed over the years by Cunningham. But her collaboration with Cohen – he has taken hundreds of snaps of her in her peacock-bright costumes – has brought her to a new generation, and photos of her have appeared in rafts of hip, young magazines. She had her own feature in Time Out New York recently.
“Ari just has this thing for older women. And why not? We get better and better. And grander and grander. Because we are freer and freer.”
Dell never gave her age – 78 – until one of the magazines Cohen sent her picture to refused to run it without the number. “And that has been great, too” she says, “letting go of that worry.”
Cohen is also a technological enabler: his site has become a home for new bloggers. Self-proclaimed nutritionista Debra Rapoport, 66, writes about her “thrifted and gifted” style. And artist Ilona Royce Smithkin, still in the studio at 91, has found a new medium in the video work she does with Cohen and posts on the site. Smithkin jumps off the screen with the bright red eyelashes she sports daily, made from her own hair.
“Colour is important to me, it is all about the combinations,” she says, likening the process of dressing to painting. “Some colours sing together. You mix others, you get mud. Like some people don’t mix.”
Smithkin has developed quite the following herself: now when Cohen sets out to meet her, he elicits questions from the twittersphere that he can channel to her.
Cohen is a rapturous tweeter, though the concept doesn’t travel without his charming photos: stuff like, “The secret to living well as we age: curiosity!” comes across as a tad twee. But the earnest approach and unique niche (he will occasionally snap a dandy older male, but Cohen’s heart is with the silver foxes) has almost enabled Cohen to quit his day job.
“I moved to New York three years ago and I worked in a bookstore. Actually, truth is I only moved here when my grandmother died. We were very close and I wanted to be near her in Seattle. But it was her wish that I come to New York. She went to Columbia and she talked about the city all the time.”
Even as a lad, Cohen found himself drawn to his subject: “I would doodle fancy old ladies in my school notes,” he says.
Now working on both a book and a documentary, Cohen takes on fewer “regular” fashion gigs, which have included other types of style photography, fashion production and writing. He still walks the streets every day, looking for advanced fabulousness. “I need to keep the feel organic, and you get that approaching people on the street. I go to events, and yes, in this age group I do better on the Upper West and Upper East sides, but I walk the whole city. You never know where you are going to find a treasure.”
Last summer Selfridges commissioned Cohen to take his show on the road, and he did a special exhibit of the advanced style he found on the streets of London.
“That would be my dream, to travel all over, especially the US, revealing unknown style icons.”
Cohen has found quite the renewable resource to follow. For even as the last icons of the elegant eras of dressing dwindle in number, there will always be a new crop of advanced stylers to worship.