How it’s New York: because Simon Doonan lives here,
the movie had a NYC premiere, the women live here…
but I’m getting ahead of myself.
How it’s Irish: because Doonan is a son of Reading, Berkshire, England, with Belfast, Ireland relations.
I was physically threatened on the subway over the holidays by a young woman in her 20s or 30s. She began with a particularly disgusting diatribe, and capped the performance off by calling me an “old, ugly b*tch.” Then she offered to do me bodily harm “if only I wasn’t so old.”
Considering I am solidly middle-aged, a New Yorker, and literally a black belt in kung fu – and had just been admired for my sexy elegance at a party – her attempts to shock and intimidate just made me laugh. And I know she’d been “playing to the audience” on the train, but I must have scored some points by laughing because she got very upset and looked ready to cry. All this because she shoved herself ahead of me in line, and I had the temerity to call her on it.
Why do some people view boomers (people born within the 30 or so years after World War II) as stupid, unattractive, unwanted, unnecessary, and unloved? Now don’t tell me that this only happens among ignorant, callous people. This practice is unfortunately widespread: at eldercare facilities, government offices, in fashion, etc. And it’s a lot sneakier than that loud-mouthed idiot on the train: ageism is very much alive in business, too, despite some very strict laws. Such weird prejudice makes people over 50 (Yes, I did say 50! Did you flinch…?) [pullquote]Yes, I did say 50! Did you flinch…?[/pullquote]the perfect targets for any predator who feels compelled to emotionally – or physically – beat them up if the perp’s own ego is flagging or s/he needs to get ahead.
What is one antidote to this pandemic? Thankfully, the type of people featured in an amazing blog. Advanced Style that became a movie, and then a book and tour. These people really live well with enviable courage and gusto. What young daredevils are these? Ha! [pullquote]What young daredevils are these? Ha![/pullquote] I refer to Advanced Style, a work of love, respect, and sociology by Ari Seth Cohen, about women and men over 50 who live life on their own terms. Inspired by his revered grandmother and her friends in his San Diego neighborhood, Cohen developed his own unique personal style. He came to NYC in 2008, and was thrilled and captivated by the mature women he saw. He began approaching them and asking to take their photographs – no mean feat of persuasion and courage on both sides in this City. But his sincerity and charm won them over. Cohen photographed scores of active, vital women and men ages 50+ and then, with Lina Plioplyte (a filmmaker he met in a coffee shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), developed a blog appropriately named Advanced Style. That blog still runs: Cohen and Plioplyte snagged an interview and photo op with Carol Channing for a recent entry.
One day, Plioplyte proposed making videos of the blog interviews. Once filming, they realized that here was a terrific, compelling story: letting these vivacious, powerful women talk about their lives. So the pair began a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary of the same name, and proceeded to make the film with seven glorious women and less than $50,000. With international premieres (Canada, London, New York), the popularity of this film and these women’s stories rapidly went global. They are now recognized, stopped on the street, and admired – to their utter surprise and delight. The House of Lanvin even featured one woman, Jacquie Murdock, as a “Face of Lanvin 2012” at the request of a totally enchanted Lanvin designer, Alber Elbaz. (For my InterReview with the extraordinary Jacquie Murdock, look here.)
The New York City preview of the film was held at The City Winery, with a program including Cohen, Plioplyte, all seven women, and one Simon Doonan as MC. Now, we could easily imagine Doonan’s presence, and pertinent – and impertinent – questions and bon mots upstaging a group of guests. But not these women! They sparred with him – tastefully and powerfully – like pros. [pullquote]Occasionally, Doonan had to remind these daring doyennes that he was the one who was interviewing them[/pullquote] Occasionally, Doonan had to remind these daring doyennes that he was the one who was interviewing them, but he did it with charm and sparkling wit. [For more Simon Doonan, see our interview here.] At one point in the program, everyone but a pianist and teensy Ilona Royce-Smithkin, 94 (in an impossibly-long red feather boa) got off the stage. The latter crooned “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” and other delicious songs in a sultry voice like an Edith Piaf pixie. It was heaven! Then I went home and watched the film.
The three character traits that all the woman in Advanced Style have in common are: each is an astonishing original, all of them possess indomitable spirits, and every one of them lives full-out with confidence. Royce-Smithkin, an artist who painted Ayn Rand’s and Tennessee Williams’ portraits and made eyelashes out of her own red hair, felt like she’d finally come into her own only ten years ago. Joyce Carpati, who worked at Cosmopolitan and is still a beauty consultant at 82, was a former opera singer and still sings, travels back and forth to Europe, and dresses with style and grace. Tziporah Salamon, 64, is a performance artist, model, and stylist to male and female clients and for the TV show, The Carrie Diaries. Debra Rapoport, 69, is a textile designer, visual artist, and a “manipulator of materials,” whose creations have been exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And Lynn Dell Cohen, 81, the owner of Off Broadway, a New York City vintage clothing boutique, hosted her own television show, and produced and directed weekly fashion shows at New York’s Tavern on the Green and the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Zelda Kaplan (1916-2012), a designer and fashion fixture featured in the 2003 HBO documentary Her Name Is Zelda, passed on in the front row at Fashion Week! But although her story may be finished, she is still revered in an industry and City that loves their true originals. The other women are still creating new adventures in their remarkable lives…and not quietly, either!
One day soon after the preview, I made a point of checking out Cohen’s boutique on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was a fairly encyclopaedic representation of fashion from many cycles and eras, and I took in every hat, glove, coat, scarf, shoe, and dress with the giddy glee of a curator in a fashion house’s clothes closet. Unfortunately, Cohen wasn’t there – but her force-of-Nature store manager, Pat Taieb, was. She advised, scolded, pleaded, cajoled, and nudged women and men to act boldly and really be their most expressive selves in what they wore. I was thoroughly engaged, as was a young man there contemplating the possible purchase of his first – blue – top hat. Of course, we all egged him on. [pullquote]Of course, we all egged him on.[/pullquote]
Perhaps the implausible encounter with that woman on the train was a gift, because she gave me a great perspective for writing this article. After all, we learn as we (hopefully) mature that every challenge is also an opportunity to explore our character and strength. These women in the film are very strong, and not vulnerable in the most important way: their spirits. And the best part is, they turn around and encourage others to be the same. Growing older may be inevitable, and growing up/maturing an aspiration, but living with gusto is an exercise in guts and glory.