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See sharply dressed seniors through the lens of 'Advanced Style' photographer Ari Seth Cohen

Is being older still the new black? It certainly appears that way as fashion and beauty companies continue to tap women of a certain age to star in brand promotions. Sixty-nine-year-old Susan Sarandon is the latest international brand ambassador for L’Oréal Paris, while 70-year-old Bette Midler mugs in the spring Marc Jacobs ad campaign.

They join a growing list of mature women featured in brand campaigns: 81-year-old Joan Didion sat for a Céline ad in 2015, 65-year-old Pat Cleveland appeared in a 2015 Barneys New York ad campaign, and 94-year-old Iris Apfel posed last year for Kate Spade and Alexis Bitter ads and was the subject of an exhibition this year at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche department store in Paris.

That's where San Diego native Ari Seth Cohen, who photographs flamboyant 60-plus-year-olds on global streets for his blog Advanced Style (as well as for a 2012 book and 2014 film of the same title), comes in. He's often credited with inspiring a movement to break through the glass ceiling of ageism. British department store chain Selfridges collaborated with Cohen on a 2010 “forever shop” dedicated to timeless style and, in 2012, Marc Jacobs credited Cohen's blog as an inspiration for his fall collection. Since then, senior It girls have been fronting major brand campaigns.

Roberta Haze photographed by Ari Seth Cohen for Cohen's new book, "Advanced Style: Older and Wiser."
Roberta Haze photographed by Ari Seth Cohen for Cohen's new book, "Advanced Style: Older and Wiser." (Ari Seth Cohen / powerHouse Books)

After seven years in New York, Cohen relocated to Los Angeles in July 2015. His second book, “Advanced Style: Older and Wiser” (powerHouse Books, 272 pages), which includes about 20 stylish L.A. seniors, arrived this week. Cohen is scheduled to have book signings at the Museum of Contemporary Art store in downtown Los Angeles on April 30 and Book Soup in West Hollywood on May 4, and several subjects from the book will make those appearances with him.

Art of dressing

Like his subjects in his new book, the 34-year-old dresses with devil-may-care confidence. He ambles up a sidewalk in Los Feliz donning double leopard prints (a coat layered over a tuxedo jacket), Maison Margiela tuxedo pants, Gucci horsebit loafers, his grandmother’s buckle-style engagement ring, along with a smattering of oversize turquoise rings, a bow-shaped bolo tie and bold gold glasses by L.A. Eyeworks. The majority of Cohen’s look consists of finds cobbled together from his favorite neighborhood thrift shops, Squaresville and Paper Moon Vintage.

“I really love a personal sense of style,” says Cohen. “I think that’s what the [people] I photograph have in common. Making fashion fun. The joy of dressing in an artful way. And because they were born at a certain time, they’re used to things being a little more original. There wasn’t this mass-produced look of everyone having the same outfit. They’re still searching for things that are unique, that stand out.”Seventy-five-year-old artist and philanthropist Valerie von Sobel, who graces the new book’s cover in a structural Céline dress and an ethereal hat by local designer Aliona Kononova, agrees.

I really love a personal sense of style. I think thats what the [people] I photograph have in common. Making fashion fun. The joy of dressing in an artful way. And because they were born at a certain time, theyre used to things being a little more original. There wasnt this mass-produced look of everyone having the same outfit.

Ari Seth Cohen

“Ari’s interest is in women who are vital and who don’t fade into the sunset willingly,” says Von Sobel, who lives in West Hollywood. “They tend to be colorful ladies with hundreds of bracelets and bakelite jewelry who are vibrant and very noticeable. They are not about being chic at all. I am not either. I am more about unusualness, a take-no-prisoners, quirky kind of style. To me, fashion is not frivolous. It keeps creativity alive, in the designer and in the wearer. It speaks of you before you open your mouth.”

Senior influences

Cohen attributes a close affinity to his grandparents for his focus on the senior set.

“My [paternal] grandmother Helen was sort of a style icon in San Diego. Everyone thought she was a movie star wherever we’d go,” he says. “And Bluma [his maternal grandmother] was a librarian, who retired after I was born and was a second mother to me. So the way I thought about aging was based on this incredible woman, who was my best friend. She taught me about art and fashion and encouraged me to move to New York because she had gone to Columbia University.”

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Another early inspiration was British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, 75, who resides part-time in Del Mar and is known for her unconventional style and fuchsia hair.

While Cohen’s first book only featured women, 41 men are showcased in his forthcoming tome. He notes that his immaculately dressed paternal grandfather, Hal, who had an affinity for cashmere sweaters, argyle socks, and Italian brands such as Brioni, had the nickname “Mr. Perfect” and that in high school Cohen himself often wore hats, shirts and jackets from the 1950s from his other grandfather, Jacob.

Bliss photographed by Ari Seth Cohen
Bliss photographed by Ari Seth Cohen (Ari Seth Cohen / powerHouse Books)

Aging redefined

Cohen says he started photographing stylish older people in 2008 when he borrowed his roommate’s camera after meeting the late actress Mimi Weddell, then 93, and other swank, spirited New York women in their 60s and older who were “painting the town.”

“I wondered why these weren’t the women who we were looking to for inspiration, wisdom, style advice, life advice,” Cohen says. “You look at magazines and television, and [the focus] is on really young girls who haven’t even fully formed their style yet.When aging comes up, it’s all about anti-aging, which doesn’t make people feel good about themselves. There’s a prevailing idea that aging is all about decline. It’s all negative, and there’s so much fear around it. It’s so important to fight ageism. We’re all going to get old.

“One woman told me, Never retire. Just retread your tires,’” he continues. “I thought that was great. Reinvent yourself. Always have something to do. And I think gratitude is a huge thing. Women in their 80s and 90s tell me they wake up every day feeling grateful so they make the most of their time. People can complain about getting older, but you’re lucky to have another day, another year.”

And what's next for Cohen? He says he's working on a series of videos about “advanced love” that features older couples.

Mario Trillo photography by Ari Seth Cohen
Mario Trillo photography by Ari Seth Cohen (Ari Seth Cohen / powerHouse Books)

Valerie von Sobel, who is on the cover of the book "Advanced Style: Older and Wiser," is photographed at her home in West Hollywood.
Valerie von Sobel, who is on the cover of the book "Advanced Style: Older and Wiser," is photographed at her home in West Hollywood. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

More about Valerie von Sobel

In the book “Advanced Style: Older Wiser,” cover model and West Hollywood resident Valerie von Sobel mixes pieces by Céline, Etro and Charles Anastase and local designers Aliona Kononova and Jerell Scott with Lawrence Vrba statement necklaces and vintage hats (a favorite source is Recess on North La Brea Avenue) or turbans she fashions from vintage fabrics.

Her other beloved Los Angeles boutiques include Mameg, Just One Eye, Opening Ceremony, the Way We Wore and Golyester.

Von Sobel in her own words

“I think of everything happily and I see no reason whatsoever to whine about anything.”

“Style is very much like an automobile; you can drive a ’57 Chevy or you can drive a new Bentley.”

“I have vital curiosity about everything, from bugs to hairpins.”

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