'Advanced Style': Melbourne Review

Advanced Style Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Melbourne Film Festival

Advanced Style Still - H 2014

Here's to the self-styled supermodels of the AARP set.

Street fashion chronicler Ari Seth Cohen celebrates the senior style queens of Manhattan in this documentary offshoot of his popular blog of the same name.

Chalk up a victory for seasoned sophistication and personal flair over the tyranny of youth and slavish fashion in Advanced Style. Director Lina Plioplyte and photographer Ari Seth Cohen's affectionate documentary salutes a cluster of New York women who express themselves through their proudly individualistic looks. Ranging in age from 60 through 90 and from regal chic to harlequin-like flamboyance, these ladies illustrate the rewards of growing old without surrendering their fabulousness. While the film feels slightly padded and might have been sharper in a tight, hourlong format, it's impossible not to be seduced by the joie de vivre of its subjects.

The age before beauty idiom implies that one is exclusive of the other, but the women photographed and written about by Cohen in his blog and subsequent book refuse to be constrained by such a narrow definition of physical attractiveness. Also among the film's strengths is its democratic embrace of women from across different lines of wealth and ethnicity.

The majority of Cohen's subjects are not filthy rich Upper East Side matrons whose wardrobes are bulging with couture classics, though one woman does tantalize her fledgling fashionista granddaughter with the promise of inheriting her collection of Chanel handbags. These are snappy dressers who are generally less driven by the label than by the creative assembly of a perfect ensemble. One aging clotheshorse says it might take her years to find the earrings or whatever other final piece is required to complete an outfit, and until then, the look is kept on hold.

Brief introductory footage shows Cohen approaching potential subjects on the Manhattan streets, which anyone who has spent time in New York will know are every woman's catwalk. The shutterbug explains that his fascination for stylish women d'un certain age comes from his grandmothers, and pundits including Simon Doonan, Iris Apfel and Dita Von Teese weigh in to support the view that fashion should never be considered the exclusive domain of the young.

The main body of the film, however, focuses on the women themselves, eight principal subjects who speak candidly about their lives, their experience of growing older and their style philosophy. Joyce Carpati, a longtime Hearst magazine staffer and classically trained singer, offers: "I never wanted to look young; I wanted to look great." The mantra of Debra Rapoport, a 67-year-old yoga enthusiast into body-sculptural looks: "Style is healing."

Some of the women have partners or families, but a number of them are single, admitting that finding enduring love or having children never quite worked out for them. Without compromising their affection for their subjects, Cohen and Plioplyte subtly suggest that a degree of self-absorption may be an inevitable requirement in the creation of such eye-catching personae.

One of the interviewees, Tziporah Salomon, says with only a faint shadow of regret: "My hats and bags are my children." And in an amusing illustration of the large personality that often accompanies a fierce look, boutique owner Lynn Dell is taken aside before a group appearance on The Ricki Lake Show to be reminded that she needs to allow the others a chance to talk. (The exchanges of Dell, her store co-worker and their customers are a reality show waiting to happen.)

While not all the women articulate the feeling, they appear to share the view that creative costuming is as beneficial to the observer as to the wearer. Zelda Kaplan, a doyenne of Manhattan haute street chic whose outcome provides a poignant closing note, says, "I think good style improves the environment for everybody."

Among the most captivating interviewees is Jacquie "Tajah" Murdock, who started out at 17 as one of the original Apollo Theater dancers in Harlem and at 82 landed an ad campaign for Lanvin, photographed by Steven Meisel. She recalls that in her era people dressed to the nines to hit the town on Friday and Saturday nights even if they were domestic workers. And 93-year-old Ilona Royce Smithkin is a delightful spitfire, batting massive eyelashes fashioned from her own flame-dyed hair.

Funny and sweet with just an occasional hint of melancholy, the documentary doesn't gloss over the downside of aging and its encroaching physical limitations. But primarily, it celebrates the freedom that wearing your years with confidence and a defiantly youthful spirit can bring. The film also might serve as a great pilot for a globe-hopping TV series, seeking out comparably fearless fashion elders in other world style capitals like London, Paris and Rome.

With: Ilona Royce Smithkin, Debra Rapoport, Jacquie "Tajah" Murdock, Tziporah Salamon, Lynn Dell, Joyce Carpati, Ari Seth Cohen, Zelda Kaplan, Iris Apfel, Simon Doonan, Dita Von Teese
Director: Lina Plioplyte
Producer: Ari Seth Cohen
Executive producer: Eric J. Feig
Director of photography: Lina Plioplyte
Music: Kelli Scarr
Editors: Yianna Dellatolla, Michael Carter
Sales: Dogwoof
No rating; 72 minutes