When photographer Ari Seth Cohen’s beloved Grandma Bluma told him as a child, that one day, he had to move to New York – the epicentre of creativity – she probably never imagined that she would inspire him to conceive one of the most life-affirming concepts of the 21st century.
Over eight years ago, Cohen moved to the Big Apple, after the passing of the woman he describes as his "grandmother and best friend". He started documenting the style and stories of the vibrant senior citizens he came across on the street, running out of the bookshop he was working in to take a snap every time a subject caught his eye. “It was a tribute to [Bluma] and a way to deal with the profound loss of living without her inimitable guidance,” he says.
What started as a blog, Advanced Style, has since morphed into a movie, two books and a movement that has taken on a life of its own.
Cohen has given a platform – or rather, a glittering podium – to a demographic that, for a long time, has been largely ignored. His diktat embodies the idea that age is irrelevant, and positivity is everything, smashing stereotypes of ageing and boring conventions suggesting that people of a certain age should blend quietly into beige obscurity.
Dance through life
Cohen’s recently released second book, Advanced Style: Older and Wiser, features more of his inspirational subjects – this time, from his travels to everywhere from Tokyo, Buenos Aires and London, to Sydney, LA and New York. Faced with 272 pages of men and women who live life with the knowledge that to get older is a privilege and a joy, your heart can’t help but swell.
Take 97-year-old yogi Tao Porchon-Lynch who says, “When I was 87, I started competitive ballroom dancing… It’s never too late to follow your heart. When I get up in the morning, I say to myself, 'This is going to be the best day of my life,' and then it is.’”
Joy Venturini Bianchi, 77, similarly embraces every day with all the flair of a deserving style icon. “Fashion can truly unite us as a community,” she says. “A place where we can truly enjoy each other, perhaps even to love each other – as we celebrate life and celebrate difference.”
Then there’s Cohen’s front-cover muse, the outrageously chic Hollywood actress, artist and philanthropist, Valerie Von Sobel, 74, who sums up the Advanced Style spirit perfectly: “Life is a costume party and getting dressed for it is simply grand.”
Yet, on Cohen’s travels, he’s been surprised by how endemic the idea of seniors feeling invisible has become. “I expected to see differences in the way that different cultures view ageing, but I soon realised that pretty much everywhere I went there was a similar attitude towards ageing that was quite negative,” he says.
“The thing that I hear most often from people when I’m travelling or showing my work somewhere is, ‘Thank you for making us feel visible’. It's a global problem, where there’s a real fear-based culture around getting older.
“I travelled to Japan which I thought would have been one of the most embracing of older people, but journalists were telling me that there’s a huge focus on youth in Japan and that although there’s kind of a respect of older people culturally, they’re very often forgotten.”
Old and bold
The key to ageing with vitality, Cohen has discovered, is attitude. “These women [I photograph] didn't all of sudden wake up, turn 70 or 80 and have this amazing life – they’ve worked since they were young to take care of their minds and bodies,” he says.
“They’ve learnt with time that the moment something is wrong, go to the doctor and face those challenges with a lot of hope, looking towards the future rather than back at the past.
“Your attitude can get you through so much. But I can’t expect to climb a mountain or jump out of plane or do yoga when I’m 90 if I don't start now.”
What’s clear is that Advanced Style transcends, race, religion, culture and creed. It doesn't matter who you are, where you’re from, how much you weigh or how much money you have. It’s a universal language that celebrates getting older with colour, creativity, positivity and an inimitable zest for life.
Much like Grandma Bluma’s legacy, Cohen has ensured that long after those who live the Advanced Style philosophy are gone – leaving enviable rainbow-hued wardrobes in their wake – their positive energy will live on. And you just know Bluma’s looking down from wherever she is, feeling very, very proud.