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Friday, October 3, 2014

"Advanced Style" Creator Ari Seth Cohen Advocates Fashion at Every Age

Posted By on Fri, Oct 3, 2014 at 2:30 PM

click to enlarge Ari Seth Cohen takes a photograph for his blog, "Advanced Style." - ARI SETH COHEN
  • Ari Seth Cohen
  • Ari Seth Cohen takes a photograph for his blog, "Advanced Style."

In a city as cosmopolitan and trendy as San Francisco, a well-dressed person can seem as commonplace as a Muni stop. That said, we’d have to do a double take if we saw any of the stars of Advanced Style walking down Market Street. The new documentary details the lives of seven endearing, elderly, New York women, all in possession of some truly impeccable fashion sense.

The man behind the film, Ari Seth Cohen, began the project in 2008, when he decided to photograph the well-dressed women he was constantly seeing on the streets of New York. His blog “Advanced Style” grew in popularity, eventually leading to a photography book and now, a feature length documentary.

SF Weekly caught up with Cohen to pick his brain about youth, superficiality, and what he’ll look like at 80.

1. “Advanced Style” started out as a blog, and was followed by a photography book and now a documentary. When you started the blog, did you have any desire, or even any idea that it would expand to what it is today?

No! I mean, I started the project to make friends with these women, and to make a connection with older people living in New York. I had just moved to the city, and I was best friends with my grandmothers, and older people always played such an integral part of my life. Initially, I just started to meet these incredibly dressed, really vital, vibrant women, stated to take their photographs, and then decided to start the blog in order to, hopefully, get people to look at aging a little differently. But I had no idea it would lead to a book and a film.

2. Were you surprised when the blog took off?

Not necessarily surprised, because I knew that these women had the power to not only give us joy, just from looking at them, but also help shift our viewpoint on aging. I knew young girls would look at them and really be inspired to not be fearful about getting older. I always knew they were incredible people that I was photographing, but I just didn’t know where the project would lead me.

3. The film focuses on seven women you had photographed previously for the blog. How did you establish relationships with them? In the movie, you’re shown just walking up to women on the street, is that how you met them?

Yes. That’s exactly what I do very day, go on the street and find people to photograph. Debra Rappaport, one of the stars of the film — when I was working at the Neue Museum in New York and had just started my blog, I asked her if I could photograph her with just my iPhone, and she said, “Of course! I’ll dress, I’ll undress, I’ll make you a vegetarian meal.” She was really the first person to open up to me, and allowed me into her home. We became great friends, started collaborating. I think each woman was someone I met just walking around.

4. The film makes a very stark argument against the fashion industry’s focus on youth. Why do you think that youth is so highly valued in the fashion world?

Well, I think [the film] makes the argument, in general, that we shouldn’t give up and fade away, no matter what age we are. I think the fashion industry has it totally wrong. It doesn’t really make sense to exclude this very rich, vibrant community of older people, who not only know what they like, but have the time and the money to shop. I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of fear when it comes to aging. I know editors, and stylists, and journalists, we’re all afraid of getting older. I think a lot of that fear is put into the advertising world. It fuels the whole system. I think if we really showed a positive image of aging, I think that hopefully certain things will start to shift. They already have, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

5. Fashion, at least from the outside, is often considered a superficial form of expression, yet it’s clear that these women take such pleasure and validation from it. What does fashion offer people that another, more common form of expression doesn’t?

Well, putting on a hat or a scarf or a bracelet is a lot easier than sitting down and drawing a picture. I mean, you could do either one, they’re both creative acts, but anything can be a creative form of expression. You can live your life in a creative way just by your approach to life. I think that the ladies [in the film] don’t really think in terms of fashion. It’s more style, lifestyle…These women throughout their lives have continued to be fully themselves. A part of that is the way they dress, and another part is just their attitude towards life.

6. What would you say to older people who aren’t confident enough, or just don’t know enough about fashion, to dress like the women in the film? What should they take away from the film?

I would say, don’t try to dress like the women in the film. Dress how you feel comfortable. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Don’t care what anyone else thinks. If it’s something that you desire, and you want to change your look, then try it, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. But, I don’t think that dressing up should be a scary thing, I think that it should be fun. Have fun with it.

7. If someone’s younger, either much younger or just not over sixty, what is something that you hope they take away from the film?

Anything from becoming closer to their great aunt or grandmother…to, hopefully, embracing the journey of life, and realizing that as they get older, it doesn’t have to be something that’s so scary, that it can be something that’s very freeing.

8. What do you think Ari Cohen is going to look like at 80 years old?

Just an exaggerated form of myself. I’d like to think I’d be a little mix of Liberace and Cary Grant.

Advanced Style opens in San Francisco on October 10th at the Presidio Theater. The premiere will feature an in-depth Q&A with Ari Seth Cohen, led by San Francisco’s own Joy Bianchi. Advance tickets available here.
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David L. Garcia

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