If senior citizens gave out a lifetime-achievement award to Nice Young Men, fashion photographer Ari Cohen would be the mensch to beat. Cohen’s blog, Advanced Style, celebrates women over 50 who, in his words, “have great style and who are active and vital.” The New York City women he profiles include veteran models, boutique-shop owners, and one former Apollo Theater dancer. It’s a sweet project, with a straightforward request for the fashion industry to do a better job of recognizing older women. And it’s gotten results, including an accompanying book, modeling deals for its featured players, and now a thin but pleasant documentary, destined for Movie Night at the local assisted-living home.
Advanced Style opens with Cohen politely accosting older women on the street to ask if he can shoot them. Though they have every reason in the world to be wary, the ones who make it into the movie love the offer, and soon the film moves through lickety-split profiles of several women who said yes. The pace is too quick for any of the subjects to leave a strong impression, but it’s clear they all share a great lust for life—and, yes, for style. Instead of trying to keep up with the latest trends, these ladies by and large reject the mainstream fashion industry’s youth obsession in favor of secondhand shops and tucked-away goods. Still, they don’t hide their glee when the big modern design house Lanvin Paris takes an interest in their newfound fame.
The women who leave an impression in the film are the ones with the most outsized personalities: Tziporah Salamon, a veteran stylist with a coy smile, has such a bubbly excitement that Cohen occasionally asks her to turn it down. And the 93-year-old Polish portraitist Ilona Royce Smithkin, clad in bold reds and purples, is frank about her approaching death: “I can’t buy green bananas anymore,” she says.
Director Lina Plioplyte has shot videos for outlets like Barneys, Calvin Klein, and Coach, and the influence is obvious: a fashion-show sheen on the ladies’ outfits, with enough backstory to make the passage of time feel significant. But Plioplyte makes an unfortunate choice by focusing so much on Cohen, who treats his niche empire like he’s launched an international style movement. If indeed he has, simply by acknowledging that seniors put some thought into how they dress, that says more about the misplaced priorities of the fashion industry than it does about him.
Cohen, who at times assumes the role of his subjects’ agent, publicist, and foster son, gravitates toward wealthy women who have already seen large degrees of professional success in creative industries. This makes the film’s simplicity somewhat disingenuous. These aren’t just old women who happen to “have great style,” as he says at the film’s outset, but women who have worked their entire lives to earn respect and validation for their fashion sense—and who were celebrated in their youth by the same looks-obsessed industry that chases after young people today. There’s a whole other film to be made out of such a dynamic. Advanced Style isn’t that film, but it is charming. And everyone looks great.