Arts & Life
3:19 am
Mon April 1, 2013

'A Lovely Feeling': Celebrating Older Women With Fabulous Style

Originally published on Fri April 5, 2013 8:50 am

The fashion industry is sometimes criticized for unrealistic portrayals of young women. But if you're a woman older than 60, there are almost no portrayals, realistic or otherwise. Fashion may be something you have to invent more than follow. A blog called Advanced Style focuses on women who've done just that.

The blogger bringing their images to the world is 31-year-old Ari Seth Cohen. His idea of heaven is to wait in the freezing cold on a street corner in the middle of Manhattan hoping a fabulous-looking older woman passes by. When he spots one, he rushes up to her, explains his project, asks for a photo and just generally tries to convince her he's not a weirdo. He's rarely turned down.

Cohen says the most influential people in his life were his grandmothers. He loved watching old movies with them and looking through their scrapbooks. And as a little kid, he became fascinated with the way women dressed in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

"I used to draw pictures of fancy older ladies as a kid," Cohen says. He collected the drawings in a book, he says, and called it something like "Fantastic Ladies with Amazing Style."

"Now," he says, "the women who I'm photographing, they're the women from my book from when I was a kid, coming alive."

Cohen even moved to New York from his native San Diego because one of his grandmothers told him "that's where you have to go if you want to be creative." He didn't have anything in particular in mind when he moved there, though.

"I didn't set out to be a photographer or a writer," he says. "I just wanted to do something that I felt inspired by and start sharing it with people."

And it has caught on. In addition to his blog, Cohen now has a book called Advanced Style. A coloring book is on the way, and he's raising money to complete a documentary. Cohen has worked on campaigns for Lanvin, Coach and a sunglasses company, all featuring the women he has photographed. Some have become good friends, both with him and with each other.

Two of them are Debra Rapoport and Joyce Carpati. They are living proof that there are many different ways to look fabulous. Carpati is 80. She goes for simplicity and elegance. "Less is more," she says. "I would start with a dark background and add to it with accessories or jewelry."

Rapoport, 67, is the opposite of that. She dresses in layers of contrasting patterns topped off by one of her signature hats. They appear to be made from coiled fabric. They're actually Viva brand paper towels, rolled, wrapped and painted. What she doesn't make, she buys in thrift shops.

At our age, "we've got closets full of wonderful things," says Rapoport. So the challenge "is what can I not buy?" And thrift shops provide the challenge. "I give myself a $5 limit," she says. "If I can find something, great. And if I can't, then I really don't need it."

The two have traveled with Cohen to book signings around the country and in Europe, and Carpati and Rapoport are clearly having a lot of fun with their Advanced Style adventures. But the impact on another one of the blog's stars has been more profound.

Ilona Royce Smithkin, 93, is one of Cohen's most famous subjects. She's well under 5 feet tall and topped off by hair that's a shade of orange not found in nature. Then there are her eyelashes — about 2 inches long. "I cut off my own hair and made my own eyelashes," she explains. That means they are orange, like her hair. She is determined to be noticed.

"Sometimes older people are really put into a very hidden spot," Smithkin says. "They exist and people know they exist, but they have to fight for themselves instead of being still part of the world, which we are."

Smithkin has lived in the same one-room flat for about 60 years. It's crammed with zillions of things as colorful as her hair: clothes, of course, but also art that she has made over a decades-long career. The artwork never brought her fame. The Advanced Style blog has. Now, she gets modeling jobs. She's on billboards. People recognize her on the streets of New York.

"It's a lovely feeling," she says, "like you are part of the world and the world is part of you."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The fashion industry is often criticized for, shall we say, unrealistic portrayals of young women. But if you're a woman over 60, there are almost no portrayals, realistic or otherwise. A blog called Advanced Style is working to change that. The blogger bringing their images to the world is a 31-year-old man who thinks older women deserve more attention.

NPR's Ina Jaffe has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: What could be better than standing in the freezing cold in the middle of Manhattan, hoping a great-looking older woman will walk by? Well, maybe you can think of something better, but it's Ari Seth Cohen's idea of heaven.

ARI SETH COHEN: Oh my god, we have to go look at that lady. We have to follow her. She is incredible.

JAFFE: Cohen spots a statuesque woman across the street, nearly head to toe in basic black. She's not wearing a coat. She's keeping warm with a sweater under a sleeveless mink vest. He asks if he can take her picture, tells her about his blog and just generally tries to convince her he's not a weirdo. It works.

COHEN: OK. And then just come a little closer. Perfect. OK, that's great.

JAFFE: Her name is Rosalyn Goldstein. Asked about her sense of style, she sticks to the basics.

ROSALYN GOLDSTEIN: I dress because I'm cold if I'm not dressed. Being naked doesn't work for me.

JAFFE: And then she's off. The encounter lasts just a couple of minutes.

COHEN: People are so open in New York. Older women especially, they love that opportunity to be able to share.

JAFFE: Cohen says that the most influential people in his life were his grandmothers. He loved watching old movies with them and looking through their scrapbooks. And as a little kid, he became fascinated with the way women dressed in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

COHEN: I used to draw pictures of fancy older ladies as a kid. And I made a book and it's called "Fantastic Ladies with Amazing Style," something like that, when I was a little kid. And it's funny, now that I'm in New York, the women who I'm photographing, they're the women from my book from when I was a kid, coming alive.

JAFFE: Cohen even moved to New York from his native San Diego because one of his grandmothers told him, that's where you have to go if you want to be creative.

GOLDSTEIN: I didn't set out to be a photographer or a writer or anything like that, I just wanted to do something that I felt inspired by and start sharing it with people, and I guess it caught on.

JAFFE: Has it ever. In addition to his blog, Cohen now also has a book called "Advanced Style," a coloring book is on the way, and he's worked on campaigns for Lanvin, for Coach, and for a sunglasses company - all featuring the women he's photographed. Some have become good friends, with him and with each other.

COHEN: Hello. We're here.

DEBRA RAPOPORT: Welcome.

JAFFE: Debra Rapoport and Joyce Carpati are living proof that there are many different ways to look fabulous. Carpati is 80. She goes for simplicity and elegance.

JOYCE CARPATI: Less is more. I would start with a dark background and add to it with accessories or jewelry.

JAFFE: Rapoport, who's 67, is the opposite of that. She's wearing lots of layers in mixed-up patterns of charcoal, white and chocolate, all topped off with one of her signature hats that looks like it's made from coiled fabric.

RAPOPORT: Viva paper towel, Kimberly Clark.

JAFFE: Those are paper towels?

RAPOPORT: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

JAFFE: Is there wire in it?

RAPOPORT: No. They're just very strong and a little glue and just a matter of manipulating the material.

JAFFE: The three now sometimes travel together. A few months ago, Joyce Carpati joined Cohen in Paris for an Advanced Style book signing. Unfortunately, the books themselves didn't arrive.

COHEN: So Joyce walked around looking elegant, and she did a little song.

CARPATI: I sang for them, I did, you know, because that always helps, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

JAFFE: What did you sing at the Paris bookstore?

CARPATI: I did "The Man I Love," and wait a moment, this was a while back: (Singing) fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, I gotta love one man 'til I die. Not bad for an 80- year-old, huh?

JAFFE: Carpati and Rapoport are clearly having a lot of fun with their "Advanced Style" adventures. But the impact on another one of the blog's stars has been much more profound.

COHEN: Ilona?

ILONA ROYCE SMITHKIN: Yes.

COHEN: Hi, how are you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

JAFFE: Three flights up from a Greenwich Village street is 93-year-old Ilona Royce Smithkin, one of Cohen's most famous subjects. She's well under five feet tall, and topped off by hair that's a shade of orange not found in nature. Then there are her eyelashes, about two inches long.

SMITHKIN: I cut it off, my own hair, and I make my own eyelashes.

JAFFE: Which means her eyelashes are orange, too, like her hair. She is determined to be noticed.

SMITHKIN: Sometimes older people are really put into a very hidden spot. They exist and people know they exist, but they have to fight for themselves instead of being still part of the world which we are.

JAFFE: Smithkin lives in a one-room flat. It's crammed with zillions of things as colorful as her hair: clothes, of course, but also art that she's made over a decades-long career. The artwork never brought her fame. Cohen's blog has. She gets modeling jobs. She's on billboards. People recognize her on the streets of New York.

SMITHKIN: It's a lovely feeling, like you are part of the world and the world is part of you.

JAFFE: The reward of a long life, well-lived and getting better all the time.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.