Style for the Ages

by Natalie Jacobs June 28, 2013


Street-style photographs cover the pages of popular magazines and their online counterparts, showing off the seemingly effortless style of “regular” people looking fabulous on their way to anywhere. Web sites like The Sartorialist have made candid clips a staple in the fashion world, but the subjects of these little glimpses are usually slim, 20-something females wearing colorful tights, a printed sun dress and super chic loafers (depending on the season). Ari Seth Cohen is a self-taught street-style photographer, but his subjects are a bit more…advanced.

“I’ve never photographed anyone under 60,” he explains. The oldest: 104.

Cohen grew up in Del Cerro and attended Patrick Henry High School. He moved to Seattle for college but came back for a short time before moving to New York City in 2008. Shortly after he arrived in the Big Apple, he created a blog called Advanced Style and started amassing images and stories of stylish older women and men who caught his attention on the streets.

This affinity for older folks started with Cohen’s grandmothers, Bluma Levine and Helen Cohen, who both resided in San Diego until their deaths prior to his cross-country move.

“Helen was a really fashionable woman,” says Cohen. “San Diego is so casual, but she was always dressed in beautiful suits with great accessories. She really gave me … that inspiration.”

As is common in many Jewish families, the grandmothers were the heads of Cohen’s extended family. They hosted Friday night dinners, and together with his mom, they shopped, visited museums in Balboa Park and headed to Los Angeles for theatre. Grandmas Levine and Cohen, particularly Cohen, always dressed to the nines.

“Even my grandfather was very well dressed,” Cohen says. “That’s how they confronted the world. That’s how they wanted to be represented; it’s how they expressed themselves. I don’t think they could have imagined doing the opposite.”

He says it’s a carry-over from the 1930s and 40s, when it was more customary to dress in elegant, multi-layered outfits with flowing dresses, pumps and gobs of accessories. In New York, Cohen found that this tradition has persisted for many fashionable females of the 60-plus set.

“A lot of times, the women I come across remind me of women I saw in my grandmother’s old photographs. They still wear hats; they still wear gloves. They still kind of carry on these traditions from vintage fashion, and I think that inspired me too.”

Cohen says he never leaves home without his camera. When someone catches his eye on the street, he stops her, tells her she looks amazing, explains a little bit about his Advanced Style project and politely asks if he can take a picture, noting that it may appear in a book someday. Most people are receptive, but he has to be careful, because these are not people who are accustomed to being approached on a street, and being in Manhattan, they naturally have their guard up.

The point is to capture people in their natural environments, wearing what they would wear on any day, when they’re not expecting to be photographed. Oftentimes, after shooting the picture, Cohen will talk with his subjects and set up a time to come to their homes for an interview and more photos. He has become friends with many, continuing to be in contact long after first stopping them on the street. He travels with some, giving talks on aging and style around the world.

One such woman is 80-year-old Joyce Carpati. She retired from Cosmopolitan about 10 years ago, when she realized there weren’t a lot of opportunities left for her there. She didn’t want to stop working, so traveling with Cohen and talking to audiences about what it’s like to age has given her a new purpose.

Cohen is very passionate about keeping older people engaged in creative projects outside the home. He saw how hard it was for his Grandma Levine when she couldn’t drive anymore, and he wondered what it would have been like for her if she hadn’t had family to help her. Especially in a city like San Diego, he notes, “a city that is so driven by automobiles … we have to be aware in San Diego and cities that aren’t so urban, of the needs of older people, and notice older people. Because Southern California is youth-obsessed, there isn’t a lot of embracing graceful aging, so hopefully that can inspire people as well.”

While there is no shortage of fashion inspiration in New York City, Cohen credits, in addition to his grandmothers, two San Diego style icons as inspirations: Sally Thornton and Zhandra Rhodes. His mother pointed him in both of their directions.

When he and his mother would run across Thornton, of the Thornton Winery Corporation, at the mall on occasion, they would stop to admire how great she looked. Cohen’s mom also closely followed the successful career of Rhodes, a textile designer who has a home in Del Mar.

“We’d see her out sometimes, and she was just the biggest star to us,” Cohen says.

Cohen’s first book, bearing the same name as his blog, came out in May. He will release a coloring book based on the images from Advance Style, due out in November. He is also finishing a documentary following the lives of five different women he met in 2009. Cohen also writes and photographs outside of his Advanced Style project, most recently completing a photo shoot for Vogue Australia featuring six different women he met on the street, modeling the latest Spring/Summer accessories.

So, can style keep people young?

“I think being creative can, and I think using fashion as a way to express yourself…definitely. But it’s not only style. It’s keeping people engaged and active.”

Cohen isn’t in San Diego often, but when he is you’ll likely recognize him by the colorful suit coat and the camera draped over his shoulder, searching for his next subject.


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