“I never wanted to look young— I wanted to look great.”
—Joyce Carpati, ADVANCED STYLE (2014)
When Ari Seth Cohen began taking photos of aesthetically ambitious older women on the streets of New York back in 2008, he never would have guessed what the project would become. “I was just making friends,” he told me. After he moved from the west coast to New York in his late twenties, Cohen started snapping these pictures to mourn the recent loss of his grandmother. He launched the blog Advanced Style as a place to catalog and share his observations, and a movement emerged from there.
14 years later, Advanced Style has blossomed into a massive, vivacious community dedicated to aging with vitality. Cohen has turned the blog into a prolific output that includes four books and counting (Advanced Style, Advanced Love, Advanced Style: Older and Wiser, and The Advanced Style Coloring Book) and a 2014 documentary directed by Lina Plioplyte.
While Cohen’s photos speak for themselves in many ways, I was so captivated by his work and the women he’s documented that I needed to speak to him directly. Below, we dive into the project, his path, and his worldview.
What brought you to New York in the first place?
The whole project was really a homage to and celebration of my grandmother, Bluma, who was my best friend. It was a way for me to heal from the loss of this figure in my life, who was my biggest muse, who encouraged my creativity, and made me feel okay to be myself. She had lived in New York in the 1930s, and went to graduate school at Barnard. So as a kid, when we were collaging together, or going through books, or watching old movies, and playing in her closet, she always encouraged me to go to New York and live there someday. So it was always in the back of my mind. It was a dream of mine even to visit New York when I was young.
She passed away in 2008, and I had been living between San Diego— as a caretaker for my grandmother helping my mom— and Seattle, where I went to college and studied art history. Then a friend of mine told me one day that he was moving to New York, and so I said, “Okay, I’m moving too.” I was ready. I moved basically because I was searching for something that my grandmother had told me about, which I felt even deeper with her loss.
At what point did the idea for Advanced Style develop?
It wasn’t really a concrete idea. Right before I moved to New York, I had never really taken pictures before, but I photographed this woman in Seattle from the back because I liked her mix of patterns. Then a month before I moved to New York, I saw a film at this film festival in San Diego called Hats Off, starring this woman who was in her 90s named Mimi Weddell. It was a documentary about how she was a mother and a wife, but then she became a model and an actress in her 70s, 80s, and 90s. She was modeling for Louis Vuitton and Burberry and Juicy Couture, and she was just this dynamic, incredible, eccentric, stunning woman, and had so much life in her. I was really taken by her. I’ve always loved characters; those were the sorts of women my mom really looked up to. Zandra Rhodes lived part-time in San Diego, so we would see her walking around. My mom always encouraged an alternative aesthetic or expression of style.
So anyway, I went up to Mimi after the film and said, “I’m moving to New York in a month, and I’d love to be your friend,” so she gave me her number. When I moved to New York, I started working various internships and retail jobs, and eventually interned for the designer Abigail Lorick. I showed her a picture of Mimi, and she said she wanted her in her show.
Mimi became my first muse, and then shortly thereafter, I started taking photos on the streets of women that I thought were incredible, but I didn’t know what to do with the photos. I didn’t have any mission at that point; it was more of a way for me to heal from this loss of my grandmother.
Then at the same time, I realized that a lot of my girl friends who were in their late 20s— almost turning 30— were already fearful of aging because of what the media presents. I knew that these women had the power to change that perception of aging, so then I started the blog and it kind of went from there. It started off as something personal to me, and then led me on this journey, but it has always been about making people feel better about themselves. I try to present all different forms of aging. I just want people to not necessarily hate the fact that they’re getting older; lines on your face and gray hair can also be beautiful. I always look at signs of aging as something very beautiful.
Advanced Style is also such a clear celebration of fashion. How would you describe your own personal style, and how has it evolved over the years from working with these women?
I’ve always loved clothing because of my grandmother, but I try not to take it too seriously. A huge part of my life is collecting and putting things together that make me happy, and I gravitate toward women who also use clothing as a way to bring joy into their lives, and express themselves and their moods, and play different characters. I just have an appreciation for personal style. Style is your personal expression, so that’s what I look for.
My style is ever-changing— I just got rid of all of my prints! Personal style changes with what’s going on in the world and how we’re feeling. Debra Rapoport, who’s one of the earliest people I’ve photographed, always talks about how style and creativity are healing. A lot of the women talk about how getting up in the morning, putting on something that they love, and putting an outfit together is a creative act.
Clothes communicate something about us. These women aren’t dressing for other people either; they’re really dressing for themselves. But once you make the decision to be who you are, and not just wear the easy, simple, gray garment, you open yourself up to commentary.
When you first started Advanced Style, how did you gain the trust of the women on the street you’d approach to photograph?
The women I was approaching were people I wanted to connect with because of losing my grandmother, so I was (and still am) approaching these women with a lot of respect, interest, curiosity, and appreciation, and I think that they can feel that. This is just my nature, but I learned to start with a compliment. Tell this person directly why I’m stopping them: “I love the hat that you’re wearing,” or “You look so beautiful today.” I wasn’t threatening to them.
The women who became a core part of the documentary were also at a point in their lives where they were passionate about it changing perceptions of aging, and they wanted to be ambassadors for aging as well. I had no idea what would happen with the women, and what would happen with the project. I was just making friends— I wanted to be these women’s friend. And then I just kind of created my dream life in a way, looking back on it— going to all of these parties with all of these incredibly dressed older women, going on adventures. It was a really special time.
Considering the age of the women you’re documenting, I would imagine COVID has had a major effect on the project— not only regarding safety, but also in terms of the importance of amplifying the voices of this demographic.
It really affected the project. I thought about whether this was really something I wanted to continue to do, and even posted on social media asking questions about what direction people want to see Advanced Style go in— is it still necessary? Obviously, the pandemic disproportionately affected older people. There were so many situations where older people were treated in a more disposable way (like they always are), and what I realized was that people wanted to continue to see joy.
It’s affected my work due to the fact that it’s not as easy to make the same kind of relationships. I try to be very aware of health and how I engage with people. I’m very cautious with COVID in general, especially because of the work that I do. But that all being said, I was just able to travel with my 80-year-old friend for the first time. We’d seen each other a few times during the pandemic, playing dress up in her home, but it was so nice to meet people again, and meet older people. So many of the women I’ve photographed— they need to live again! They’re thinking about how much time they have left; they’re ready to be out in the world again.
I’ve been very thoughtful about the fact that I can’t really engage with the demographic that I’m shooting in the same way. But I think connection is such a huge part of growing older with vitality, and during the pandemic, older people were obviously isolated, like all of us. That’s a really detrimental thing for people who are aging. So we did a lot of Zoom parties and interviews during the pandemic— I even did an Advanced Style Zoom reunion of 40 ladies, and I put it on YouTube. So thank God for these technological tools that allowed us to still be in contact with each other. I think community, connectivity, and creativity are three of the most important things that keep people thriving as they get older.
What are the most salient lessons you’ve learned from Advanced Style?
These women have become such a part of who I am. They’re such a part of me now. I’ve taken lessons from their journeys, but most of all, it’s how courageous and bold and brave they are. They give me a sense of hope and optimism about the future. They’re these role models of how to live vital lives.
I find myself repeating their philosophies, and those things have become a part of the way I express myself now. Debra Rapoport has been a big part of that in terms of the way she speaks about creativity and expression. It’s really the way that they live their lives more than anything, and how they continue to challenge themselves, and the fact that you just don’t have it figured out, no matter what age you are.
The important part of my project that I always try to encourage is this intergenerational exchange of ideas. The women teach me so much about not worrying about what other people think; staying true to who I am. As they’ve gotten older, they’re less fearful about judgment, so they’re able to really embrace who they are and express themselves. Meanwhile, they might be facing other things that I might be able to help them with— like maybe there’s an aspect of getting older, like they’re feeling a bit lonely. We just need more of that exchange between generations.
What’s next for you and the Advanced Style project?
I’ve started pitching a project to publishers about women and their pets, so I’ve been collecting images, and traveling around to visit the women and men from Advanced Style, and photographing them with their pets. Especially during the pandemic, my little pup was my best friend. A lot of people’s friends die as you get older; that’s what I’m going through with the women right now, so this bond with our pets is really important. Then I’ve also been continuing the friendship project, Advanced Friendship.