Wednesday, May 23, 2012

No Holds Barred - Advanced Style

Ari Seth Cohen signing the first copy of his first book to artist and mentor Maira Kalman, who taught him how to sign it.
by Blair Sabol

At 30 years old Ari Seth Cohen is a beloved old soul. For the last 4 years he has dedicated himself to photographing and celebrating women (and now some men) 68 and older on New York City street for his Advanced Style. I've been a huge fan of his daily accounts since most of his women have THE best advice on how to look and how to survive. Forget Jane Fonda and Dr. Deepak Chopra and their "anti aging" hype. These women are living in "the trenches "of longevity. There's 100-year-old "Ruth" who Ari photographed doing her Pilates. She insists "you should never leave the house without some lipstick."

Cohen has brought aging with personal style online and now front and center with his new book published by powerHouse Books (go to Amazon for orders). The images and quotes from all the women are beyond inspiring. But so is Cohen. He was born in San Diego. From a close knit family, he was tightest with his grandmother. When she died he moved to New York City to "find myself" and started seeing "all these wonderfully dressed older people ... and I wanted to shine a spotlight on them."

Ari Seth Cohen of Advanced Style. Ari celebrated the launch of Advanced Style (the book) last night at Sky Room at the New Museum.
"I hadn't seen anything like that in my own generation and I am sick of all the youth obsessed mania. So I started walking every day from the Village to the Upper East Side shooting all these women. I also acquired most of them as friends. Now I have at least 50 new "grandmas.'"

Many of "Ari's gals" are now almost street celebrities ... and people recognize them from his popular blog. "But this is what I always wanted," says Cohen. "These women are really something and when I go up to them and ask them if I can take their picture they are at first shocked. And then they get into it and love the positive reinforcement. And that has been my mission ... to exalt them and how they live. I feel if we don't honor our elderly in our culture, we lose."

We absolutely do and when you read Ari's blog and his new book, it is a real revelation. Unlike Bill Cunningham, Cohen is not a fashion/clothing "street shooter." His blog has nothing to do with himself and his personal likes/dislikes. The women he chooses have a confidence and an individual spirt that he focuses on. They are the ones who give him the captions.

"The overriding message" says Cohen is they are NOT dressing for others. "They dress for themselves. Plus the streets of New York allow everyone to dress up and show off." Cohen is now on his way to Europe to promote his book and I can see him doing his Advanced Style in every city.
Ari Seth Cohen's sneakers and matching back pack.
Ari at work on the street doing his Bill Cunningham rendition, grabbing one of his "subjects."
"This really isn't about the clothes. I look at it as just the first layer to their souls. And they have tons to teach us. By recording their clothes they tell me their philosophies." Advanced Style is now so popular that in the last 6 months I kept getting various friends emailing me (as if I didn't already know) about "this inspiring visual site." Even my 96-year-old father got hooked on Advanced Style and wrote Ari a fan letter. He loves Ari's pictures and the women's words of encouragement. So now Ari has gone VIRAL and his influence of celebrating aging has inspired Marc Jacobs (an Advanced Style follower ... or so it was reported) in a few of his Fall 2012 designs!!!

"There is so much these women teach me on how to stay current and the need to get out of yourself and participate even if it means showing up on the street with a new hat," says Ari.
Ari shooting one of his favorite gals, Lynn Dell. Lynn in all her Advanced Style glory.
Ari and Lynn post-shoot. Ari in a tie dye shirt from Lynn Dell's collection at her Off Broadway store.
I decided to meet with Ari and go "street walking" with him to see how he does it. We met on the Upper West Side and he was dressed in mismatched printed thrift shop attire and colorful sneakers. His Canon 5D in hand and his backpack on his back. He was ready for action. His eye is keen and no one rejected him. In fact everyone ends up loving him (even I now want to adopt him as my grandson). His approach is loving and encouraging. This is no stalker. He assures me he is not looking for anything other than "a certain vibrancy. It is not about class, money or ethnicity. It's how they do their scarf ... everything is in the details. The face is just an expression."

We ended up at Lynn Dell's store Off Broadway on 139 West 79th. Dell is Ari's "Goddess of Glamour" and one of his many muses. She strutted out on the street yelling "Hello Manhattan ... here I am ... I am my own special creation." She stopped traffic and Ari shot up a storm. She was decked out in a fabulous red hat, terrific black ensemble ... red cowboy boots and red jewels. True, Lynn Dell is a "professional dresser," but Ari "found her" and made her into more than just another shop owner. "I inducted him into the theatre of my life," says Dell. "
Ari and Lynn at Lynn's Off Broadway store.
And Ari considers her store his temple. "He hung out at my shop and watched me make over a lot of these women." As for aging Dell believes "I am not afraid of aging. As long as I have my accessories. Clothes? I could care less. But a bad death I don't want." Dell, 79, is notorious forgetting women to come to her store and feel good about themselves. "I was a Rockette and I still kind of am .. and I love what dressing does for my spirit. All of Ari's women do.

But Ari is special. He truly loves his gals. Even when he approaches you on the street he really connects with your story. At least he makes us feel we even HAVE a story. He is helping certain women come out of obscurity. Now he is even doing a documentary about aging stylishly.
Lynn Dell and Ari Cohen discussing the Advanced Style book.
Before I leave Lynn Dell 's store she makes sure I know that "Ari inspires us old broads and now we are inspiring HIM. It is an incredible give and take. He gave us all this attention and now we are stars with something to say." No news that it has become "hip to be old."

90-year-old Iris Apfel has recently made the news with all her new "branding" accounts. She is now doing Mac makeup and appearing on Home Shopping Network and more. She may be on the verge of being "overexposed." But time is of the essence. Ari knows and admires Iris. "But there are a lot of OTHER great women out there besides Iris. She is a ground breaker and just the beginning."
A tiny sampling of Advanced Style subjects.
Before I met Ari I got a hold of his book and noticed he had a foreward written by the famous illustrator/writer Maira Kalman. She has been a hero of mine for years and I requested to meet her to do a story on HER. When Ari heard I had contacted her he asked if he could come to my interview as he had not seen her since the book was published and wanted to give her one of his first copies. I arrived at Kalman's studio early and bumbled (nervous at meeting an idol) my way through my intro of asking her questions on her personal style. She was quick and to the point; She mostly wears black and white and pulled out her "comfy" shoe collection.

"I walk every day for miles ... it is my passion. Good walking shoes are it for me." Then she showed me her wall of pictures of her dear mother Sarah "who has been my biggest influence ... in everything dressing and life. She was the real deal."
Ari Cohen presenting a copy of Advanced Style to his mentor, illustrator Maira Kalman. Kalman wrote the foreward.
Kalman is a born teacher, and all I wanted to do was listen to her expound (she is so hardcore honest and joyous at the same time) on ... anything!!! I also fantasized that I wanted to actually buy a painting of hers. But Ari arrived and suddenly the vibe changed. We sat at Kalman's work table and I saw a real touching "teacher /student" interaction. It was Ari's first experience at signing a book. Maira coached him (a bit) through all that ... what page, how long. After all, she has had real success with her best seller Principles of Uncertainty, The Pursuit of Happiness, and my favorite, her children's book Looking at Lincoln.

I sat there and shared that I had heard a lot of my 60/70-year-old women friends in New York City complain about being ignored and invisible ... not to mention the overriding feeling of loneliness and loss. Maira reflected immediately (she is 63), "Well, I am aware of mortality cause my father and some of my family died in the holocaust" (she is Israeli born). "But honestly I love being invisible. It is so freeing. I can do and go anywhere I want. And beauty was never my issue. However I don't know what 'aging gracefully' honestly means."
Kalman's favorite shoes, including a felt shoe made by her sister, and her own Toms. And her favorite Comme de Garcon shoes.
Both Ari and Maira agreed that many elderly live alone and are isolated. Then I added that many women I knew were not only alone but fiercely angry at the whole situation. Especially in New York City. I felt that some have lived alone for so long they only knew how to be furiously solo. It is beyond loneliness. They no longer yearn for "another" or any connection. It's as if they are stuck in staying narcissistically alone and against the city and the world.

Maira felt badly about that. "Being alone without family and resources and all that 'how will I make it in life' are not insignificant issues. But there are small ways to age with hope and 'good cheer' or so I like to think," she says with a twinkle in her eye. Both Ari and Maira felt "family is key." "It's the departure point and entry to all connection," according to Kalman.
Kalman's absolute favorite walking shoes. And she WALKS!!!!!!
Ari added, "for better or worse ... family is IT."

Then Maira took off: "I think being as fit as you can be and being inspired by one small thing a day. Oh, and curiosity in anything for five seconds can give you some kind of lift. As for the need for attention ... I say take your 'gorgeousness' into something creative. Not in a showmanship way. But play an instrument, garden, learn bridge. I do know that an artist gets a pass on all this. And I love my work and I get noticed for that. But it is about my art, not ME!!!"
Maira Kalman's biggest fashion and life influence, her mother Sarah.
Both Kalman and Cohen felt it was having "a passion for anything" that becomes the focus to survival. Not just sex and constantly talking about your grandchildren. "Creative passion will keep your blood moving and good posture," adds Kalman. Kalman's fascination with old people has been longstanding. "I love people who are near the end of their lives. They tend to cut to the chase of reality faster and really are focused on what is important. They hold the keys of interest for me. It's all about the wisdom."

As for plastic surgery Ari shook his head in disgust while Maira reflected, "Look, I knew a young person who asked her grandmother, 'what are all those wonderful stripes (wrinkles) on your face?' When you think about the honesty of children ... No little kid says to their grandparent 'why don't you get your face done?' It has become all out of whack."
Kalman's favorite hat collection.
She went further and insisted, "I love the choreography of how old people stand and move. It reflects such character. And I look for that warmth and exuberance in every old face. It is there. It becomes a point of reference for me. NO wrinkles? No character. I am proudly I attached to my own wrinkles."

Both Kalman and Cohen told me they randomly stop older people on the street and tell them how great they look. "It's important to do that," says Kalman, "because I simply want them to KNOW that." And Cohen adds, "I feel when I do that it is kind of a blessing for both me and them."
Maira Kalman's foreward in Advanced Style.
Before we left Kalman's studio, her final words to me about all this "aging, beauty and styling dreck ... Remember it's about life. It's called 'living." Go out and concentrate on living ... who cares about aging."

When Ari and I hit the street no sooner did I turn around then he had scored a grey-haired lady in a wheel chair. At first I didn't see anything special about her image. But once his camera started clicking she became a movie star. I left him realizing I want to be an "Ari Gal" and someday I want to own a Maira Kalman painting.
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