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Photos: Courtesy of Lyn Slater

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How ‘Accidental Icon’ Lyn Slater Reinvented Herself and Reclaimed Her Voice

The retired professor, 70, is still teaching lessons in 'How to Be Old,' a memoir that details her Instagram ascendency, exit from social media and rebirth / BY Nathalie Atkinson / March 14th, 2024

As a fashion intellectual exploring personal style, Lyn Slater, 70, has amassed 772,000 followers on Instagram as @iconaccidental. The retired academic, widely recognized for her eclectic collection of statement earrings, sunglasses and distinctive grey bob, eventually got an agent, became an in-demand fashion influencer – and then she walked away.

Slater’s Instagram handle remains the same, but much has changed. The former professor of social work at New York’s Fordham University has reshaped her Insta platform into a place for reflection and revived her blog, which is grounded in literary stylings instead of selling stuff.


Lyn Slater
Slater was a social work professor at New York’s Fordham University when she posted this picture on Instagram in 2016, three years before she retired to be a full-time fashion influencer. Photo: Courtesy of Lyn Slater


That journey is detailed in her memoir How to Be Old: Lessons in Living Boldly from the Accidental Icon. Each chapter is an essay about a lesson learned every year since she turned 60, on the theme of reinvention. At 61, it’s “Take Advantage of Lucky Accidents” – like how she was first noticed by street style photographers. By 63? “Fear Not Risks and Welcome Mistakes,” part of her ethos about owning errors, be they small – like failing to recognize a famous designer – or big – like not asserting her worth (initially, she did Instagram promotion for free). 

But How to Be Old is fundamentally about reclaiming control of her voice. Slater, who’s taken creative writing classes at every decade, is thrilled to be a first-time (non-academic) author at 70. “It’s a very special moment for me,” she says from her home in the Hudson Valley in New York State. “It’s sort of been a deferred dream.”

The essays blend reflective memoir with skills from her background as a scholar, critically observing the culture. The pages are peppered with references to writers, from the late Joan Didion to French fashion influencer Garance Doré, 48, to British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, 81. The most influential, Slater tells me, has probably been Deborah Levy, 64. 

Slater just finished The Cost of Living, one of the British poet and novelist’s “working autobiographies,” and responded to the sense of immediacy, as well as the way Levy writes about objects (including clothes) “with such care.” When Slater looks at garments, she likewise sees narratives. “I’m interested in how clothes can communicate your identity… . I have always made that big distinction between fashion and clothing. But when I was an influencer, I lost that distinction.”

The social media fame and crisis of values that How to Be Old chronicles began a decade ago, when Slater felt constrained by academia’s expectations around self-presentation. In exploring her personal style, and looking for a creative outlet, she began to take continuing-ed classes at a New York fashion school, started a fashion blog, got noticed on the street (mistaken for a style editor) and created the Instagram account as “Accidental Icon.” After her visibility, ad campaigns and earnings peaked in 2019, Slater retired from academia and transitioned into full-time influencer. That’s when everything started to go downhill, she recounts, and thinking about her social media presence consumed every waking minute.

I joke that capitalism doesn’t discriminate. “I attempted to do creativity with commerce. I really gave it a good college try,” Slater admits. “And I did believe,” she says, “that I was doing it in an authentic and creative way.” But it soon became controlling – brands would send a brief with both photographic examples “and very detailed notes” – and if her content didn’t conform, demand retakes.

“As a social worker and professor, I had always been deeply aware of my privilege,” Slater writes. “Critical reflection was part of my practice.” When pandemic closures brought influencing to a virtual standstill, she had to confront her growing unease. Surrounded by racks of “influencer clothes” in her cramped apartment, Slater began to realize the dehumanizing effect of selling herself in the service of selling products. Acting on those misgivings, she and Calvin Lom, 66, her partner of 26 years, left New York City in 2021 for the Hudson Valley, where they are restoring an old house near her daughter and the two young grandchildren she helps care for. 


Lyn Slater
“Well I’m 70 today,” Slater wrote on Instagram June 30, 2023, when she posted this picture. “Wearing a silk pajama shirt and ripped jeans just because I want to.” Photo: Courtesy of Lyn Slater


Creative destruction, Slater points out, is the necessary counterpart of creative renewal, and of a piece with Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela (designers she admires) who walked away from successful fashion careers to pursue other artistic interests. 

“I’m not nostalgic,” she declares. “I don’t like to live in the past, and I want very much to remain modern and relevant.” The constant tenet is to “let my curiosity take me. … It usually leads me to something that I need to hear.” 

To keep up on what’s happening in the culture, she seeks out younger writers – like millennials Melissa Febos and Amanda Montei, who write about bodies. An upside to Slater’s continued high profile is the close relationships with writers and activists such as The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living with Less author Christine Platt; “ironically, through Instagram!” she laughs. 

Slater’s book tour also puts her in conversation with Chloé Cooper Jones, 41, whose 2022 memoir Easy Beauty “has so many things to say about age in the context of disability,” she enthuses. “I’ve been having the most extraordinary conversations, primarily with women younger than me, which have been really life-giving and make me very hopeful about what kind of intergenerational things we might do together.”

How to Be Old is dedicated to her late mother, “who taught me how much fun it is to be a belligerent woman.” In hindsight, the rebellious maternal grandmother who took her shopping as a child was also a guiding force. Inherited contrarian tendencies have served Slater well: In an era when visually driven social media and short-form video content reign supreme, she’s putting the focus on carefully chosen words. Slater now writes about the layers of meaning behind her daily uniform of meticulously mended denim, for instance, and of the ambivalence of having been an “oldfluencer,” as boomer social media personalities are dubbed. 

“I began to use clothes and my appearance as a way to counteract some of the invisibility that comes with age,” was once Slater’s standard interview answer. Yet all the while, she bristled when influencers with little in common (beyond numeric age) were lumped together to form a reductive “Insta-gramma” trend. She disdains the euphemistic terms “seasoned” and “vintage.” It’s right there in the title: old. By the end of the memoir she’s repeating it almost like a mantra.

“The way that we represent being old today is very polarized,” she elaborates. On the one hand it’s a representation of decline, “where you are disabled and demented and depressed and a drain on society, and you’re wrecking everything for all the generations behind you.” On the other, it’s “this ageless, fit and highly resourced, totally independent senior running marathons at age 90 who absolutely needs nothing at all.” (Or, as designer Miuccia Prada recently explained to Vogue, “every single morning I have to decide if I am a 15-year-old girl or an old lady near to death.”)

“And we do have certain needs, but we also have many contributions,” Slater says, but  those two polarities represent maybe five per cent of reality; she wants society to start talking about that middle.


Lyn Slater
‘How to be Old’ covers the decade between 60 and 70, when Slater went from professor to  ‘Accidental Icon’  to her reinvention as a writer.  Photo: Courtesy of Lyn Slater


Recent Instagram posts supporting the memoir allude to tour appearances and “having to dress up again.” Is she tempted to resurrect the funky outfits and poses of her Accidental Icon alter ego? After all, as Slater writes: “When you’re old, you’re all the selves that you ever were.”

“I am no longer her, and she was a wonderful persona,” is her emphatic reply. “She took me on fabulous adventures. 

“But what started as something that was a bit transgressive became – as society tends to do, they don’t like transgressors – a box.”

Not only has she shed that skin, she’s sold off most of the capital-F fashion in favour of musings that interrogate life – yes, occasionally still through the lens of clothing. 


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