The fashion world's silver stylistas

Ilona Royce Smithkin

Young, thin models tend to dominate the catwalks and fashion shoots, but a group of stylish pensioners is giving them a run for their money and appearing in glossy ads for eyewear and designer clothes.

At 93, Ilona Royce Smithkin didn't expect to become a style photographer's muse, even less a model for a global fashion house.

When a young photographer started a blog in 2008 called Advanced Style in homage to the stylish senior citizens of New York, he heard on the grapevine about a boldly-dressed artist in her late 80s with flame-red hair and sky-high eyelashes of the same hue. Ari Seth Cohen, now 31, was immediately intrigued and began searching.

"I knew I just had to meet her," he laughs. "She sounded just like the pictures of expressive, colourful older women I used to draw as a child."

Over the next 18 months he kept an eye out in the streets and shops of Manhattan's West Village. "Then one day I saw this woman in a bright chartreuse tracksuit and wonderful red hair flying in the wind, walking across the street and I knew it was her."

Start Quote

I want to show a graceful portrayal of ageing naturally”

End Quote Ari Seth Cohen

Five years after their first meeting, they are firm friends. Cohen sits on a brightly coloured sofabed beside a diminutive Smithkin. Her lilac shoes don't reach the floor. She has lived the past 60 years of her life in this room, surrounded by her paintings, trinkets, scarves, and hats. There is no kitchen and only just a bathroom.

She admits that occasionally the three flights of stairs she climbs daily make her legs ache a little, just a little.

"But you have wonderful things in store when you get older," she chirps. "When I was younger I always worried how I looked, whether people liked me. Now I really like myself, and I'm using my creative side even more than a few years ago." She holds up a long piece of stripy material. "I spotted an umbrella someone had left in the street, I liked the colour so I took it home and made it into this scarf."

Cohen enthuses:"I just love her expressive style. Ilona makes a splash, but not in the way that my younger friends do who are trying hard so to be noticed."

Ari Seth Cohen photographs Ilona Royce Smithkin

He unrolls a large poster print of one of his photographs.

It's Smithkin close up, cocooned in scarlet feathers that wind up around her neck until they blend with the fire of her hair. She wears enormous 1960s-style sunglasses with primrose frames above a gentle smile slicked with glossy red.

Mature models

Carmen Dell'Orefice

New Zealand-based designer Karen Walker isn't the first to eschew youthful models:

  • Calvin Klein's Francisco Costa told the Guardian in 2010: "I wanted a cast that really represented a customer I design for... The woman who puts my clothes on needs a certain level of sophistication"
  • Carmen Dell'Orefice, 81, who modelled for Norisol Ferrari at September's New York Fashion Show (pictured above) told NBC News: "America may be growing up and accepting... the bulk of life exists beyond 50"
  • She may have been a relative pup at 55 but Jerry Hall stole the show for little-known designer Jean Luc Amsler at his Paris Haute Couture Show last year, according to the Telegraph

This isn't a souvenir shot to jostle for space on her busy walls. It's out there, online, selling a global brand and overturning a stereotype. Karen Walker Eyewear is worn by the style conscious and coveted by a youthful market, yet their latest campaign showcases women aged between 80 and 93 from Cohen's Advanced Style blog.

There's no airbrushing of wrinkles, no concealing of age spots, no well-intentioned soft focus to knock a few years off. This has been their most successful campaign to date.

"We didn't set out to make a statement about age. We wanted to make a statement about optimism," New Zealand designer Karen Walker explains. "The unanimously exuberant reaction from our younger customers has been that they're inspired and they want to be just like these women when they get to that age. Older customers are delighted that the fashion spotlight has been pointed in this direction."

Later Cohen heads to a an elegant apartment in Midtown Manhattan to show 80-year-old Joyce Carpati her photos for the same campaign.

She studies the head and shoulders shot of herself closely. A silver braid of hair frames her face and pink glittery sunglasses perch on her nose. She wears classic grey and black, her style channelling Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn - poise with pearls.

Joyce Carpati shows off the images used in the Karen Walker campaign Joyce Carpati with her modelling shots

Formerly director of beauty, fashion and advertising at Cosmopolitan, Carpati has first hand experience of the fashion industry's fixation on youthful, flawless perfection, that by default ignores the older women both as an aspirational image and as a valued consumer. Holding the modelling photo of herself in her lap she wonders if this will change.

"Everything except this has been marketed towards the younger generation, but even when advertisers have an idea something's good for the older person, it's always in terms of anti-ageing," she says "How I hate those words, 'anti-ageing.' They send the wrong message. It should be 'look beautiful all your life' or 'look beautiful forever!'"

Find out more

  • Ilona Royce Smithkin and Ari Seth Cohen also featured on Woman's Hour
  • It's broadcast on BBC Radio 4 weekdays at 10:00 BST and on Saturdays at 16:00 BST

This injustice is something Cohen feels keenly. He describes his maternal grandmother as his best friend and inspiration, and has had a lifelong fascination with older people and their experiences.

But his personal fascination has struck a chord with huge numbers of others. His blog has registered 10 million hits, there's now a glossy book of his photographs and a film in the pipeline. This autumn he'll publish a children's colouring book that will be the antithesis of the gnarled portrayal of ageing shown in fairytales.

"It'll show strong interesting characters," he says. "I want to inspire children to look at age in a more positive and insightful way rather than being worried about getting lines on their faces."

The advertising world is taking note. Apart from Karen Walker Eyewear, his Advanced Style ladies have also appeared in glossy adverts for Coach and Lanvin. "All I wanted was to present a picture of ageing that's different from what you see in the media - to show creative, vital older people and to illustrate that you don't lose that as you get older, and in some ways it becomes more advanced," says Cohen.

A 102-year-old woman, called Francis, poses for Ari Seth Cohen The yellow dress caught Cohen's eye

Spend a few hours with him as he paces the sidewalks of Manhattan hunting for new subjects to photograph, and it's clear he has a very precise look in mind. Madison Avenue is peppered with bejewelled elderly ladies wrapped in coloured fur. They don't turn his head.

For a moment he is entranced by a sophisticated grey-haired woman across the road, her face obscured by a plunging hat brim. He dashes through the lunchtime cacophony of taxis, camera swinging precariously by its strap. But he lets her walk by. "She's amazing, but she's had work done," he sighs. "I want to show a graceful portrayal of ageing naturally."

He is, of course, attracted to photographing older people who have strong signature styles, whether flamboyant, offbeat, timelessly glamorous or impeccably hip.

"But I mostly look for people who are strong and feel good about themselves because they are good role models. I constantly search for that older woman who crosses the street and no-one sees, but I recognise the way she tied her scarf or put on her hat."

Halfway up 62nd St, he stops, transfixed by the sight of a lady standing in a doorway with a walking stick, grey hair loosely pinned under a woolly hat. Beneath the hem of her brown puffer coat, a glimpse of canary yellow. "Wow! I bet she's had that dress since the 1950s," says Cohen, striding towards her.

A gentle polite introduction and her wary surprise creases into a smile. Within moments he is asking her to unbutton her coat to show more yellow dress and is taking her photo. She beams widely, as if being snapped by a style photographer was a perfectly normal thing to happen at the age of 102.

The silver stylistas appeared on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour on Thursday 4 April at 1000 BST - listen via iPlayer

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