“Your body is your best friend in the entire world,” says Ilona Royce Smithkin, a flame-haired nonagenarian fashion icon and one of the stars of the new film Advanced Style. Royce Smithkin has many opinions about clothes – and many more about life. “I think people expect too much of themselves, and that’s not for happy-making,” she explains from her tiny West Village walk-up. “In trying to be perfect you miss half of your life.”
The documentary in which Royce Smithkin appears is the brainchild of photographer Ari Seth Cohen and filmmaker Lina Plioplyte. San Diego-raised Cohen founded the blog Advanced Style in August 2008, and it quickly became a sensation for showcasing one of fashion’s most unjustly overlooked demographics: women over 60. The blog spawned numerous other projects – including a 2012 coffee-table book, now in its seventh print run – and garnered praise from sources as diverse as the New Yorker and Vogue Italia, which called Advanced Style less a street-style blog than “a sociological treatise” on ageing and identity.
The Advanced Style film follows seven stylish older New York women who are frequent subjects of Cohen’s blog. Filming began in 2008, and the feature was financed primarily via a 2012 Kickstarter campaign that raised $55,441. “I pulled a lot of favours to bring the film in on budget,” laughs Plioplyte. The project started after she shot short video portraits of Cohen’s subjects. “People were going crazy for them on YouTube – we were getting, you know, 50,000 views,” she says. “Suddenly it seemed like the story was much, much bigger than just a video or two.”
When first approached, almost all of the women who became Cohen’s subjects expressed some scepticism about the blogger and his project. Retired dancer Jacquie Murdock, who recalls that she was wearing a Courrèges jacket when Cohen came up to her, warned him sternly: “I’m a professional – I could sue you if you use my image without my permission.” Cohen says Joyce Carpati, now a friend and a subject of the documentary, also “took a while to convince”.
Photograph: Ari Seth Cohen
“Some women say yes, and some women say no. And that’s just how it is,” he says. “If they’re 83 years old and they’re out on the street, it’s because they have somewhere to be.” It’s the “flat-out no’s” who still haunt him. “I remember one lady on Lexington in her 60s – she had old movie-star red hair, gold belt, leopard-print jacket…” he trails off. Women who say no are worried about the use of their image, worried that the blog will patronise them – or they simply don’t have the time or inclination to pose. One woman in her 60s who works in fashion has always turned Cohen down because she finds the project “othering” to older women.
“What I present on my blog is very positive,” says Cohen, who is 32. “I don’t really show the negative aspects of ageing, because that’s already in the media. But in making the movie we definitely wanted to show the struggles.” He becomes quiet. “It’s something that we usually don’t have to think about when we’re young – losing friends.”
Cohen, a bespectacled graduate of the University of Washington, has had an interest in the elderly since childhood. He says if he hadn’t done Advanced Style he’d be working in a nursing home, and his grandmothers, Bluma and Helen, had a big impact on his early life. He describes himself as “in awe of” Bluma, a retired librarian, as a kid. “We would watch old movies together and I would try on my grandfather’s clothes and play in her cupboards,” he says. Helen, meanwhile, dressed every day in Escada suits and gold jewellery. “We used to go to Los Angeles and people would ask if she was a movie star.”
“My whole life has changed since I met Ari,” says Royce Smithkin, a mostly retired artist and art teacher. The 94-year-old, who walks with a stoop and makes false eyelashes out of her own orange-dyed hair, was recently a face of Karen Walker eyewear and starred in an online video for Coach. (Both ads were shot by Cohen.) “Whatever he asks me, it’s so much fun.” She launches into song: “How could a lady refuse?” Royce Smithkin – who painted the portrait of Ayn Rand that to this day adorns many editions of the author’s novels – says her first awareness of style came from her mother. Born in Poland in 1920, she grew up in Berlin before the family emigrated to the US in 1938. “My childhood wasn’t a very happy one,” she says. “It was a bad time. But I remember my mother always looked very nicely dressed. I was always proud of her when she brought me to school.”
Suzan Pitt – She’s an accomplished filmmaker, artist and designer. When I first saw the surreal meets graffiti meets pop-wearable masterpieces by Suzan Pitt it was during my recap of the House of Byfield runway show for Art Hearts Fashion, NYFW. They caught my eye and I was captivated. Next, Suzan was reaching out to me and sharing her incredible body of work.
Suzan has received international acclaim, having exhibited at the Whitney Museum and MoMA. Most recently, of course, at fashion week. The coats are original works of art – expressive thoughts, ideas and statements from a talented artist who truly lives her life with an artful purpose. I had the opportunity to ask Suzan a few questions about her coats and her vision..
Although the film showcases its subjects’ diversity – the women have very different lifestyles, they come from different ethnic and class backgrounds, and their personal styles range from colourful and anarchic to sedate and classic – common themes emerge across the seven stories. Financial struggles. Family relationships. Dealing with ageing and loss. One of the subjects – the 95-year-old style icon Zelda Kaplan – died during production. Kaplan fainted in the front row of the Joanna Mastroianni show at New York fashion week and was rushed to hospital. She never regained consciousness. Another subject, Lynn Dell Cohen (no relation to Ari), was hospitalised after a ruptured gallbladder.
“I almost died,” says the 81-year-old Lynn Dell. “I was on the critical list for six weeks.” One scene shows her after three operations, fully made up and wearing a black off-the-shoulder top. Lynn Dell runs a boutique called Off Broadway on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; she favours turbans and bib-sized necklaces. The other patients hardly share her priorities. “Some woman at physical therapy said to me: ‘Oh, is this a fashion show?'” Lynn Dell says, wrinkling her nose. “I said: ‘Yes, it is!'”
“As far back as when I was three years old I remember playing with materials,” says Debra Rapoport, 68, another of the film’s subjects. “For me, everything was a hat.” Rapoport, whose snowy pixie cut is dip-dyed pink and who has been a face of K-Mart, was influenced by her grandmother’s Depression-era thrift – she outfitted the household in recycled fabrics, sparking Rapoport’s own interest in the reuse of materials.
These days Rapoport is an artist and milliner who says she is inspired by the “layers” of the city – “by concrete and garbage and residue and recycling”.
Jacquie Murdock, 83, was born at the height of the Depression to Jamaican immigrants. In the 1930s and 40s, there were two gears around which Harlem style turned: church and nightlife. The teenage Murdock’s parents dressed for the former, while she dressed for the latter. “People in Harlem were very fashionable,” she recalls. “I don’t care what kind of menial job they had, they got dressed up on Friday and Saturday nights when they got paid, and they went to the ballrooms.”
“The focus is on youth,” says Murdock flatly. “Especially in fashion.” She doesn’t relate to 14- and 15-year-old models in magazines. “They look like kids dressing up in their mothers’ clothes.” In 2012 Steven Meisel shot Murdock for a Lanvin campaign. “I can’t afford the dress that I wore in the ad,” she admits. She lives on a fixed income in NYU faculty housing (she spent 30 years working as an administrative assistant to an NYU maths professor, during which time she earned three arts degrees). “It was a $4,000 dress. Kim Kardashian bought it.”
One of the documentary’s most memorable scenes depicts Royce Smithkin in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with Karen, her friend of 55 years. Karen, says Royce Smithkin, passed away last winter.
“When you get older, you don’t have to have everything,” she says. “You don’t have to go to every party. Life goes on just the same. When I was younger, if there were six parties, I thought I had to go to every one or I’d miss something. But now, every day living is a party.”
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