When he was a boy living in San Diego, Ari Seth Cohen’s best friend was his grandmother Bluma, a librarian schooled at Barnard College who possessed an elegant sense of style and self.
Considering that, it’s not surprising that Cohen grew up to found Advanced Style, which started as a blog featuring stylish senior women in the mold of 98-year-old New York fashionista Iris Apfel and later turned into a series of books and a film — all driven by a love for the spirit of older people who continue to live vital, creative lives.
Cohen will be Denver to sign copies of his latest book, Advanced Love, on Thursday, November 14, from 5 to 9 p.m. at Wild Flowers, 1201 Madison Street. Denverite and Advanced Style regular Judith Boyd, a local model in her seventies who keeps a blog of her own called Style Crone, will join Cohen in conversation during the event.
How did Advanced Style get started? Following Bluma’s advice, Cohen ended up in New York, the endless source for his Advanced Style photos and profiles. “My grandma was my greatest teacher and biggest inspiration. We spent lots of time at her home looking through old scrapbooks and photos and journals,” he says, "and she loved to watch old movies and comment on the clothes. She encouraged me to be creative and allowed me to look through her jewelry drawer and play with my grandfather's hats.
“After college, she told me I should move to New York to be creative,” he continues. “But instead, I moved home to help be a nurse for my grandma. When she passed, I had to decide what do with my life, so I moved to New York, where I began to notice vibrant older people walking in the streets.”
Before long, he got to photographing and blogging about some of the sartorially interesting mature characters he met in the city. Their style was a conversation point, but he was most intent on getting underneath those elegant shells. “Clothing has always been something fun and creative for me, especially working with things from the past, like the things my grandparents owned,” he notes. “But Advanced Style is more about creativity and personal expression than it is about fashion.”
So many of his subjects have become dear friends, it’s hard for him to pin down favorites. “Oh, man, there are so many!” Cohen exclaims. “Over the years, I’ve taken pictures of thousands of men and women. I became friends with them, and eventually made a documentary film about them. Some of those women I still talk to on the phone, like Ilona Smithkin. She’s 99 and gives me advice about love. Joyce Carpati is 87, and the most elegant woman I've ever seen. But there’s not just one or two or three who inspire me.”
Judith Boyd, who recently joined Cohen for another book signing and public conversation in Chicago, is definitely on the list. “I love Judith, and I’m excited to come to Denver," he says. "We’ve been friends for years.”
He first learned of Boyd through her Style Crone blog. “I started to see women also beginning to start their own platforms,” Cohen explains. “For me, clothes and style go deeper than the superficial relations people have with the industry. She did a series called 'What to Wear to Chemo' about dressing to support her husband, who was being treated for cancer. It had a depth, a soul to what she was doing. Instead of solely posting what she was wearing without any message, this was something really authentic. She was doing it to heal from a painful situation, and she let herself be vulnerable by sharing that.
“And then to see how she's blossomed since. She’s a wonderful person — I’ve always loved her spirit,” Cohen adds. “I try to follow things online that make me joyful, and she has such a positive message. She’s been so encouraging of my work. We see each other in New York a lot.”
The book they’ll discuss together, Advanced Love, was a leap for Cohen after two books focusing mainly on women over seventy. “I was thinking about a new project, and had been collecting photos of couples,” he discloses. “I wanted to do a project that would bring a positive message to older people in a time when things seem so much more divisive and negative. We’re inundated with things happening with the planet, and I wanted to make a hopeful message about love. As I continued to look for and research my books, I ran into more and more couples over many years of travel.”
Examining older couples opened up new avenues of discourse for Cohen. “It’s a diverse picture of love between people from different backgrounds and sexual orientations. It’s more about love, companionship and also about loss — how you move on,” he says. “And in some cases, while in their eighties and nineties, a lot had lost their partners and found new love. It’s nice to focus on another aspect of aging that’s not purely about fashion.”
After all his experience embedding with older people, does Cohen have any advice for how younger folks can up their fashion game? “It’s really about listening to yourself and doing what makes you feel joyful,” he says. “It’s about not being afraid to do what you want to do, and having the freedom to express yourself and not worry about other people.
“After all, if you’re not going to do it now, when are you going to do it?”
Advanced Style blogger Ari Seth Cohen and co-host Judith Boyd of the Style Crone introduce Cohen's new book, Advanced Love (Abrams, $29.99), from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday, November 14, at Wild Flowers, 1201 Madison Street.