The New Optics of Aging: Healthy, Wealthy and Fashion Forward

As demographics change along with an aging population, some wonderful style icons and trends are emerging and taking hold. Guest writer Brooke Hodess takes a look at some of them.

In 2005 The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art premiered “Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection.” The exhibit, curated by Stéphane Houy-Towner, featured an assemblage of the then 83-year-old style icon’s personal wardrobe.

In the ten years since, Apfel has modeled for major brands like Louis Vuitton, been the subject of a film by the late famed documentarian Albert Maysle, and created her own fashion items like senior wearables (think luxury FitBits). Not to mention she has an Instagram following of over 281K.

Seemingly overnight, Iris Apfel put senior fashion on the optic map. However, along with the now 94-year-old, people like the late Bill Cunningham, street fashion photographer for the New York Times, and fashion blogger Ari Seth Cohen, have shined the spotlight on sexagenarians, septuagenarians and beyond who illustrate that glamour, beauty and style get better with age.

In April, Cohen launched Advanced Style: Older and Wiser, a new edition of his best-selling 2012 book of the same name that introduced us to senior street style. The follow-up is more of the same delightful, inspired images that turn the idea of the dowdy old person on its headdress and shows women and men bursting with vibrancy, sophistication and confidence.

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In an impromptu chat with Sarah Jane Adams during an Advanced Style book signing at MOCA in Los Angeles, the Australian Instagram sensation (@saramailjewels), and one of Cohen’s subjects, expressed hope that the attention paid to boomers and seniors was more than a trend, and we’re moving beyond “heroin chic to more real looking people.” And real includes white hair flying free and wrinkles worn proud. In Adams’s case, her style defies the senior stereotype as she is often shot wearing layered prints and pops of color and carries her beloved Adidas attire, for which she is not a sponsor, as well as any sports icon.

With 16–25 being the typical age range of fashion models, 2016 seems to be the year designers are bucking tradition and incorporating older models into the mix. Calvin Klein’s fall campaign includes Grace Coddington, the 75-year-old creative director of American Vogue magazine. A recent TJ Maxx spot includes (another Advanced Style subject) sixty-something Tziporah Salamon reminding viewers to “be true to who you are.” Online retailer Swimsuits for All placed an ad in Sports Illustrated that featured a gold-lamé-bikini-clad 56-year-old Nicola Griffin. “People think you lose your sex appeal as you get older—but that’s a myth,” said Griffin in a statement via Adweek.

For some designers, the older model isn’t just a piece of the show, she’s the main event. James Perse, an LA-based fashion and furniture brand known for its minimalist $75 T-shirts and rustic chic aesthetic, put 68-year-old Maye Musk (yes, Elon Musk’s mum) front and center for its fall campaign.

Not all see the older woman in fashion breaking beyond the occasional burst of awareness. In an interview with The Cut, 67-year-old former stylist and beauty entrepreneur Linda Rodin said, A beautiful photograph and the reinforcement of older people in general is great. I don’t think it has to be carried beyond that point. I just don’t see it being on the cover of Vogue or Prada doing it every season. It was a one-off and powerful. It was a punctuation to say, ‘Hey! Here we are.’”

Perhaps in some cases it is simply gimmick. Bo Gilbert, for example, was the first 100-year-old model to appear in British Vogue (May 2016), in celebration of the magazine’s centennial. Vogue claims the campaign aims to highlight ageism in the industry. We’ll have to wait and see how that one plays out, but gimmicky or not, Gilbert made history and that’s still progress, however small.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the stock photography world, age diversity is encouraged. In an Alamy blog post that noted technology as a top category in 2016 stock photography trends, they stated, “Don’t limit imagery to youth subjects. Show a wide range ages interacting with modern technology.” And a bullet point when it came to the Lifestyle and Food category: ”People of all ages using fitness technology.”

In Stock Photography Secrets, a 2015 trend listicle noted “images highlighting people of different ages participating in activities that don’t fall under the realm of their usual stereotyped definitions will no doubt become more popular. A variety of different aged people (particularly in groups) is also important to consider when choosing your subjects and capturing them as naturally and realistically as possible. . . . Remember that as the population as a whole gets older due to a longer life span companies are increasingly targeting them.

But are they? As Time magazine cited in a piece for its March 14, 2016 issue, the 50-plus market is a global market nearly the size of China, with an unprecedented spending power, representing 70 percent of the nation’s disposable income. (Another staggering number: boomers will inherit $13 trillion in the next 20 years.) And yet, advertisers seem to be missing the boat. As Joseph Coughlin, director of MIT AgeLab stated for the article, “Marketers still present these years as filled with golf, cruises and a rocking chair.” He added, “The next generation of retirees expects to go out in fashion and with style.”

With people living longer, remaining in better health, and not giving in to old-age atrophy, companies have to create new marketing strategies and advertisers have to design new campaigns that require stock agencies, art producers, photographers and casting companies to use models that mirror the aging demographic, and do so realistically. Perhaps the world of haute couture won’t go beyond novelty, but when it comes to ready-to-wear and common categories—from cosmetics to computers to cars—advertisers are wise to market less to millennials and put more dollars toward their moms and dads.

Brooke Hodess is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles.

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