Silver Foxes

As luxury brands target North America’s largest consumer group, boomer women are defining a more realistic concept of beauty. It’s a gift to women of every age

Eyes: Hazel; Hair: Grey So read the stats for the 59-year-old model that opens the online women’s roster for top Canadian agency Elmer Olsen. “She has an incredible presence that exudes elegance and, wow, what a great pair of legs,” says Olsen of Adrienne Blaney, whose career took off in her mid-50s when a designer friend suggested she contact the agency.

Given the recent surge in advertising that speaks directly to a more mature market, Olsen now represents a handful of women over 40, and he points out they’re not just booking gigs for banks or pharmaceutical companies these days. “In the past, such talents were booked solely on ‘lifestyle’ jobs, but Adrienne just shot a fashion film with a notable team.”

What seemed groundbreaking in 2008 – J. Crew launching an online catalog devoted to (gasp!) 58-year-old Pia Grønning – has become commonplace. In 2012, we saw Susan Sarandon, 67, star in Neiman Marcus ads and Annie Leibowitz shoot Isabella Rossellini, 61, for Bulgari handbags. If you didn’t catch her 2012 Elle Quebec cover – a coup that would have been unheard of for a 64-year-old a few years ago – you’ll recognize Canadian-born Maye Musk (now 66) from her Revlon ads. Fashion’s May 2013 issue featured an editorial spread starring Donna DeMarco, 67. Even American Apparel, a brand notorious for crotch shots featuring nubile models (some of which are store employees), joined the fray, tapping silver-maned Jacky O’Shaughnessy as a fresh face for the brand. The lithe-limbed sexagenarian posed, legs spread, in bright purple tights – 62-year-old Jacky: just another cheeky American Apparel girl.

For the first time in history, the advertising industry is looking beyond the coveted 18-to-39 sweet spot as boomers lay claim on the style dollar. Brands that once focused solely on the youth market are now eager to connect with fashion- and beauty-conscious older consumers who have something many millennials don’t – money.

Of course, sheer numbers have rendered boomers the most influential force shaping the modern marketplace: a demographic tsunami whose flush 50-something younger end is enjoying peak earning years and disposable income. In the United States, boomers account for 25 per cent of the population (even higher in Canada at 29 per cent as of 2011) – but a staggering 70 per cent of the net worth, reports Nielsen. These are relevant figures as the majority of Canada’s advertising originates from over the border where boomers enjoy the highest income of any age group and spend twice as much as the traditionally coveted youth market. Certainly the modelling industry has taken note. In 2012, Wilhelmina Models launched a search for new faces open only to women over 30 – half the finalists were 45-plus.

At the same time, rejecting the status quo has always been a boomer leitmotif, so it comes as no surprise they aren’t poised to while away their golden years playing bridge in comfortable shoes like previous generations. “We’re living longer and taking better care of ourselves,” says Blaney. “[We’re] throwing off those quasi ‘expiry dates’ – retire, slow down, eventually arrest everything until the final exit – that our parents and grandparents marked through their lives.”

“Only in the past few years have marketers really started to pay attention and learned to speak to boomers in a manner that doesn’t imply they’re seniors,” says Virginia Pino, head of consumer and media insights at the Canadian marketing firm Media Experts. A smart move since 70 per cent of those over 45 consider the 60s not senior but merely middle age (2006 Neilsen study). “The mindset has changed. We’re transitioning through certain milestones much later, and boomers are the first to experience this. We want to look and feel good for as long as we can. So our lifestyle is youthful, and we spend a lot of money on it. That’s a fact marketers can’t ignore – especially in the beauty business.”

Declaring their 60s the new 50s and their 50s the new 40s, boomers are shifting the goalposts and redefining life phases, forcing retailers to address a dynamic new market base as they scoop up Prada bags and YSL lipsticks, not just Cialis and retirement plans. According to consumer reports from NPD Group, boomers are the driving force behind the rise in prestige beauty product sales, and American women born in the ’50s and ’60s spend nearly $47 billion a year on fashion. Cue a then 46-year-old Linda Evangelista as the 2012 face of Chanel Eyewear.

With luxury brands suddenly chasing after women in their 40s, 50s and beyond, the trend hit high tide in 2013 as a cavalcade of erstwhile supermodels took centre stage at an age that would previously have seen them put to pasture. “I wanted to cast a strong woman with definite sex appeal,” designer Jason Wu remarked to WWD of signing Stephanie Seymour, 45, and Christy Turlington, 45, for his spring  and fall campaigns last year. Turlington also resumed her post as the face (and body) of Calvin Klein Underwear. Likewise,  in 2012, Helena Christensen, now 45, smoldered in lingerie ads for Triumph while, clad only in stockings, Elle Macpherson, 50 in March, posed for the cover of Australian Harper’s Bazaar. And, looking effortlessly hip in skinny jeans and a motorcycle jacket for Lucky denim’s 2013 campaign? Lauren Hutton, America’s first million-dollar model, still going strong at 70.

It’s a significant about-face for an industry that’s historically categorized models over 25 as classic: good china pulled out only for special occasions. Further signalling that fashion’s notions of beauty are (finally) progressing, Louis Vuitton’s Timeless Muses exhibit honoured women whose “audacity and a sense of freedom changed femininity” with a 2013 event feting Kate Moss (at 40 in ads for Givenchy, Versace and Stuart Weitzman) alongside a soignée Catherine Deneuve, 70.

When Muccia Prada commented to T Magazine last spring that she wasn’t “brave enough” to put older models on the runway, she sounded, well, distinctly old-fashioned for one of the world’s most vanguard designers. Back in 2010, Marc Jacobs cast Macpherson for his Vuitton show while this year, he cast 64-year-old Jessica Lange as the summer and fall face of his eponymous cosmetics line. Francisco Costa of Calvin Klein went with a grey-haired Kristen McMenamy, then 44, telling the press: “I wanted a cast that really represented the customer I design for, and that’s not a 16-year-old.” Last year, Naomi Campbell, 43, opened the 2013 Versace Atelier show, kicking off prestigious Haute Couture Fashion Week in Paris, and Carmen Dell’Orefice, now 82 (the face of Rolex’s Class Is Forever campaign), walked Fashion Week runways in New York.

That real beauty is variable and enduring is a concept our less youth-obsessed European and British counterparts have more fully embraced; their most revered cinematic doyennes – Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau and Charlotte Rampling through Adjani, Mirren and Binoche – enjoying careers and sexual relevance well into their late 40s, 50s and 60s. “Experience is sexy and vital,” Kristin Scott Thomas, 53, told London’s The Sun in 2013. “We older women in Europe are lucky not to be shoved away in a drawer.”

While the Continent’s nuanced appreciation of evolving beauty is ingrained and more complex, North America’s changing perspective, like most things here, is forged by the bottom line. Would luxury brands be vaunting older women if they weren’t emblematic of serious spending power? No. Nonetheless, having rolled a collective eye at campaigns starring teenage girls for decades, women 40 through 60 – the demographic most likely to purchase high-end clothing and product – are now gladly leafing through magazines more reflective of who they are. “Clients are definitely shying away from the 16-year-olds of yesterday,” agrees Olsen, “and turning toward models who have more life experience to pull from.”

The last decade’s shift from model to celebrity pitchwomen has also played a key role in pushing culture’s beauty frontiers. As Matti Matyasfalvi, former agency director for Elite Toronto, points out: “The reign of the supermodel was followed by a mass influx of actresses for covers and major campaigns.” A bane for the modelling industry that’s been a boon for expanded notions of beauty as brands that previously would never have considered a model north of 30 began routinely featuring actresses in their 40s and beyond.

In 1992, after 14 years as the face of Lancôme, Isabella Rossellini was unceremoniously dumped six days after her 40th birthday. Today, that brand’s ambassadors include Julia Roberts, 46, and Juliette Binoche, 50. The latest fragrance model at Armani is Cate Blanchett, 45. L’Oréal’s roster of stylish beauties includes Andie MacDowell, 56, and Julianne Moore, 53, as well as Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda and Deneuve, all in their 60s and 70s.

“As a society, we’re very celebrity obsessed and, as celebrity aging has changed, we have new role models,” says media exec Pino, who is also a member of the Canadian Marketing Association’s Research Council. “Madonna is 55, and she’s as irreverent as she was in her 20s. Look at Ellen DeGeneres, also in her 50s, and the spokeswoman for a major cosmetic company like CoverGirl [and Olay].” Perhaps this is why Francois Nars chose Rampling, 68, a longtime muse of his work, to be the face of his cosmetics company’s 20th anniversary advertising campaign.

“We noticed a shift to more mature models across both editorial and advertising over the last five years, a steady climb, with many who had great careers in the ’70s and ’80s lured back with lucrative modelling contracts,” says Matyasfalvi. “Consumers have become smarter. They understand that they have a voice – and they want to relate with the model.”

Certainly the last decade’s advancements in beauty tech have allowed women of vanity and means to appear years, even decades, younger but, overall, the mature female demographic is demanding faces they can connect with – and by that, they mean a woman whose experience shows. Few ladies well out of their 30s are looking to buy eye cream from a model yet to earn her first laugh line.

While the fashion and beauty industry, for decades, was stuck hawking “ideal” beauty as some callow time before 29, today’s woman reports that she feels “more beautiful” in her 30s, 40s and 50s than she did in her teens or 20s. Though the sweet spot still lies in the 30s and 40s, only eight per cent felt prettiest in their 20s, compared to 17 per cent of women who felt they looked their best after 50.

It’s a new stance that’s left advertisers trying to figure out how to appeal to a generation of media-savvy boomers who value inner as much as outer beauty and reject traditional standards, prizing natural confidence over airbrushed perfection.

Over the past three years, several high-profile campaigns in Britain featuring overtly Photoshopped 40-plus celebrities (Julia Roberts, Christy Turlington, Rachael Weisz) hawking anti-aging products led not to a spike in sales but to consumer complaints so widespread that the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned the images, deeming them misleading and a breach of the advertising standards code for exaggeration. In North America, where expanding notions of beauty still seem too tethered to a woman’s perpetual perfection rather than European ideals of au fait elegance, brands are also scurrying to catch up. While 62-year-old Cindy Joseph, an older model poster girl known for her “pro-age” blog (“I love my wrinkles and wear them proudly”), found herself the star of a major 2013 anti-aging cream campaign (Nivea) that was banned in the U.K. for erasing most of them. L’Oréal’s 2013 campaign, for its new Collection Privée line, features a range of faces – Freida Pinto and Eva Longoria through Julianne Moore and Jane Fonda – all looking great whatever their age.

For boomer women hitting their 50s and 60s, aging well isn’t embodied by the unrealistic, digitally retouched flawlessness presented in many editorial and print beauty ads – quite the reverse. “I think that in the art of aging well there’s this sexuality to having those imperfections. It’s sensual,” said Sharon Stone, the 56-year-old face of Dior, to New You magazine last summer. “People are afraid of changing, that they’re losing something. They don’t understand that they’re also gaining something. As I lost fullness in my face, I got these great cheekbones.”

In other words, older women today are celebrating where they are in life. They’re not persuaded by models ostensibly their age, the patina implied, never literal. And with women over 50 now ringing up 44 per cent of beauty sales, they have the power to dictate. Yes, hire Fonda, 76, but keep her laugh lines, thank you – and the ripple effect of that emboldened new stance is terrific for women of all ages. As a 44-year-old coming up behind this wave of boomer babes, I’m grateful. Not too long ago women were de facto invisible after 45. Now, with women like forever-cool Hutton shattering the mould, I know I have decades of looking great to look forward to.

“You know what? It’s okay to age. Do it with style and confidence,” says Blaney. “We embrace this chapter of living, just as much as we did the previous ones. I feel very comfortable in my own skin. Beauty and sex appeal do not have expiry dates. They should be enjoyed through every phase of life, which is an ongoing adventure.”

Zoomer magazine, June 2014