The Advanced Stages Of Style

Advanced Style documentary

By Fotini Stephen

(TORONTO, ON) – What is the documentary Advanced Style all about? Does style have anything to do with money or dressing in brand names or looking like all your friends, or is it something that is more individualistic?

Do you think you have personal style or are you simply fashionable?

Even if you have style, do you dread aging and becoming generally irrelevant? Advanced Style is about all of the above and more.

Advanced Style is a documentary film based on the highly popular blog of the same name. Both are the brainchild of Ari Seth Cohen.

Ari grew up in San Diego, CA, admiring his two grandmothers. One told him that if he wanted to make anything of himself he should move to New York City. When she passed away Ari took her advice and moved east to do something creative.

Having had a close connection with seniors, he started to immediately notice, as he puts it, the incredibly dressed, vital, and active seniors he saw walking around in NYC. Having photographed many stylish seniors for his blog, Cohen, who had met fashion videographer Lina Plioplyte, decided to interview and film some of the fascinating people appearing on his Advanced Style blog.

The idea of the film was born shortly thereafter.

The film was made for under $50,000 and involves filming six ladies from the Advanced Style blog whose ages range from 60 to 95. They were filmed off and on for over a four year period. This is dedication to personal style by both the subjects and the film makers.

The documentary is introduced by Iris Apfel, Dita Von Tesse, and Simon Doonan, all style icons in their own right. Iris is a renowned interior designer, Dita is a burlesque artist, and Simon is a senior ambassador for Barney’s.

Doonan, who sported a stylish punk look in his younger years and who continues this style inspiration today, proclaims the film to be revolutionary, anarchistic, and counter cultural because it goes against the grain of the current focus in fashion, which is heavily youth biased.

Dita Von Tesse, who had been married to Marilyn Manson some years back and whose wedding ceremony was shot for Vogue, noted that she sees her future in these ladies.

The six interesting, stylish, and endearing women whose lives are showcased in the film are:

  • Jackie “Tajah” Murdock, a glamorous 81 year-old dancer from the legendary Apollo Theatre, harboured dreams of becoming a high-fashion model since she was a girl.
  • Lynn Dell Cohen, an 80 year-old self-proclaimed Countess of Glamour with a penchant for over-the-top accessories and owner of a storied boutique on New York’s Upper West Side, is achieving her dreams of celebrity while simultaneously facing the reality of her and her husband’s mortality.
  • Ilona Royce Smithkin , a 93 year-old recognized by her colourful ensembles and iconic red eyelashes, established a successful early career as an artist, painting the likes of Ayn Rand, only to fully embrace her potential in her 90’s when she understood the value of what she can offer to others.
  • Joyce Carpati, an 80 year-old who embodies elegance with her signature braid and pearls, passing on her fashion secrets (and vintage Chanel bags) to her willing granddaughter.
  • Zelda Kaplan, a celebrated fashion icon, talks frankly and humorously about memory loss on the eve of her 95th birthday.
  • Deborah Rapoport, a 67 year-old performance artist, natural healer, and textile designer has a quirky sense of DIY style which has gotten in the way of finding love; until now.
  • Tziporah Salamon, 62 years old, rides around NYC on her Bianchi bicycle, parading her exquisite collection of vintage items collected over a lifetime, is beginning the transition toward understanding what will truly bring her fulfilment.

Stylish people tend to be highly creative and that is something that you are either born with or you are not.

When a person with style walks into a room, we are all aware of his or her presence, we do not see the beautiful outfit that they may be wearing, we see the person and how chic she or he is. They seem to have an aura of glamour about them, irrespective of what they are wearing.

Some years ago, when I was working in downtown Toronto, I was having a quick lunch with a work friend at a food court, located on the second floor of an iconic building. As we walked with our trays looking for a place to sit, we both clapped eyes on a very young, impeccably dressed business woman.

We looked at each other, and my friend said, “Look at that girl. Such beautiful style and at such a young age.”

This is what defines a stylish person. They are often the single person in the room that are noticed first. We are inexplicably drawn to them, not necessarily because of their beauty, but because of their style presence.

At that moment in the food court so many years ago, there were over 400 people in the room but, for my friend and I, there was only one, and time stood still around her and us.

While all the women featured in the documentary are glamorous in their own way, I am not sure the documentary captures this additional Je ne sais quoi, in all cases. Some of the women featured seemed to exude this aura while others do not. Perhaps this has something to do with whether or not their presence translates accurately into film. You will need to assess this for yourself.

Advanced Style documentary Lanvin ad

What do we learn from this film about style?

Style is about being individual in your choices and, in many cases, is about fantasy. When the ladies dress up they are not who they actually are, but become who they want to be. In many cases, this involves becoming a work of art, which sometimes can come across for some as costumey or even eccentric. But, for the most part, the outfits are beautiful in their mix of colours and fabrics.

Irrespective of whether the ladies are artists or not, they are happy people who believe they have a beautiful and glamorous life. If there is a subtext to this documentary, it must surely be that even if one is not wealthy, if you have a creative spirit, like these women, you can have a happy and fulfilled life through a pursuit of style which will withstand the passage of time and the ravages of old age.

These women are happy, vibrant, engaging, and meaningful in their senior years. If you look after yourself, take pleasure in grooming and dressing up, and continuing to create a unique personal style, you too can develop confidence and continue to be engaging and relevant in your senior years.

Like some of the women in the documentary, you may wind up fulfilling lifelong dreams after the age of 60.

For example, while in their 60’s and 80’s, a couple of the ladies have now appeared in Lanvin and Target adds, others have travelled to places like Africa or Tibet, one continues to teach art, another runs, and works at, her west side vintage shop, which has been her passion for over 40 years, and one has found love at the age of 67.

Could this be the beginning of a new revolutionary movement or is continuing style while aging something that has existed throughout time?

Every generation has stylish women who remain stylish into their senior years. Think of Coco Chanel, Princes Grace, Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, and Marlena Dietrich. As far as today’s icons are concerned, there are many well dressed and, yes, stylish people to choose from, but how many will withstand the passage of time to become true style icons? Daphne Guinness will likely do so.

Perhaps people like Olivia Palermo, who had the confidence, glamour, and style to be married recently in a white cashmere sweater and long white skirt, will go down as one with enduring style.

Others that come to mind include Gwen Steffani, the rocker, mother, designer, and style icon, whose choices may not always suit everyone’s taste but who is head-turning beautiful, in almost all of her style creations.

Dita Von Tesse is, of course, already widely recognized as a style icon and her style will likely withstand the test of time.

All three of these women have different styles that may or not be consistent with your personal preferences, but what is clear is that each of these women has individual style and presence that transcends fashion.

Of course, there are also men who have been recognized for their personal style.

Writer, producer, and entertainer Pharrell is usually at the top of most people’s list. His head-turning style is sometimes controversial. Remember the Mountie hat at the 2013 Grammys? Rumour has it that the hat was originally designed by Vivienne Westwood and was actually worn by UK punks back in the 80’s.

Like the women in Advanced Style, Pharrell’s style is personal to him and, although many may try to imitate it (making it fashionable), it only truly works on him.

The same can be said for many, if not all, people with style. Style is not new. Talking about style for people over age 60 is unique and new, and this is what makes the Advanced Style documentary revolutionary and counter cultural.

As people are living longer and longer, 60 is surely the new 40 and 80 the new 60, and the film apply demonstrates this. The film has not altered, and perhaps it did not seek to alter, my sense that true style is really something that comes from within and is not too different from the innate talent of an artist.

What is clear is that this blog-based ode to the confidence, beauty, fashion, and glamour is actually an interesting documentary about life and how to live yours confidently and stylishly deep into your 90’s.

Could Advanced Style ultimately be about the fountain of youth that many have been searching for?

(Opens in Toronto on Friday, December 19 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, December 12 in Montreal at the Cinema du Parc, December 19 in Vancouver at Vancity, and December 26 in Edmonton at the Metro Cinema)

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About the Author

Fotini Stephen
Fotini Stephen is a lifestyle journalist and photo-journalist whose work frequently appears in popular media including The Square.