Ari Seth Cohen is constantly celebrating the notion that style advances with age; hence the name of his ever-popular blog Advanced Style. Cohen peruses the streets of New York searching for the most stylish, fabulous seniors. This week though, we’re particularly intrigued by his new documentary (released last month, and finally available on iTunes as of this week), which chronicles the lives of seven very special older ladies whose eclectic style and spirit go hand-in-hand with their approach to aging.
We decided to be potato-flies on the wall for a breakfast at Lafayette with Cohen and one of his cast-members, the ever-so-chic Debra Rapoport. The discussion between these two no doubt proves that style bridges the generation gap. And, let’s be real; we all have something to learn from Ms. Rapoport…
Ari Seth Cohen: My dearest Debra, has your style changed over the years from when you were younger? How have you seen those changes?
Debra Rapoport: That’s so difficult to answer because I’m still the same person. So the concept of being myself and dressing has always been there. How it externally manifests…it’s hard for me to know.
A: Well, you’ve told me before that you’ve been dressing up since you were three.
D: Right, right and it would always be over the top and when, in high school, we moved to the suburbs, man, were we laughed at! But my sister and I just kept flaunting it, because that’s who we are. You know, I think on a day-to-day, if I’m running around, then I’ll dress a little less cumbersomely, but I’ll still dress up. And if I’m going to an event or shoot then I can accessorize more because I don’t have to be as practical.
A: I also remember us talking about the fact that you didn’t really have dolls growing up.
D: Good point. Because we were encouraged to be creative. So we didn’t have dolls to dress, we just dressed ourselves. And we were always about to move, so we didn’t have a lot of furniture in the living room. We would put music on, dress up, dance, change costumes, dance some more, and it was better than dolls.
A: Do you think you’ve become bolder as you’ve gotten older?
D: Yes I think so. I think in life in general. I remember turning fifty and thinking it was really a good time, and I only had a little birdie on my shoulder maybe saying to be a little careful. Then at sixty, that birdie flew away, and it was like I didn’t have a care in the world. I mean, nobody can stop me. I can be who I want. I can do whatever I want.
A: Now that you’re almost seventy, how does that affect your style? Do you think because someone gets older their style changes?
D: I’ll wear shorts skirts. I’ll wear high heels. I’ll wear flats. No, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. The age has nothing to do with it. As long as I can still get out and about, I’m just gonna dress up. I only thrift, so I buy things that I may not ordinarily own or wear or need but it’s an interesting garment. Like tonight, I’m wearing a suit jacket from a Sasoon suit but I got it for a dollar and a quarter because they were having a 75% off sale. Did I know I was going to wear a suit jacket tonight with a strapless halter-top underneath?
A: Do you limit your budget when it comes to shopping?
D: Not intentionally, but since I love to thrift and there’s nothing I really need, it’s just more of a challenge if I say ‘I’m not spending more than five dollars’. Because it’s really the quest that’s the fun part. I mean, I can go to Bergdorfs and buy five hundred dollar items if I want. I don’t want it. That’s not fun for me. Been there done that; I don’t need it.
A: Now I know you love cooking. How does that play into lifestyle and fashion? How important is food in your life?
D: Oh very important. Very important. I’m a Cancerian, so home, cooking, and my domain is very important. But to me, cooking is the same ritual and same creative act as dressing up. It’s texture, it’s color, it’s layering, it’s what’s going to feed me or support my soul and my spirit. So I use only good ingredients. Mostly fresh. I never buy anything in a box or a container. Everything is made from scratch.
A: I’ve had the benefit of enjoying those meals.
D: And I’m delighted. I mean, when we first met I said to you, “Ari, come on over. I’ll dress up, I’ll undress, and I’ll make you a vegetarian lunch.”
A: I know that you grew up in a very unique way as far as diet…
D: So my mother was a maverick. We became strict vegetarians in the late forties, and she had to hunt for organic food. My father was Eastern European and he thought she had lost her mind. She just took a position that this was the way to go, and we took very strange food to school, so we were laughed at for that. But fortunately we grew up very healthfully, and because we never got sick, she would let us stay home for wellness days so that we could play dress up, go to museums, and go antiquing because she didn’t think it was fair that you only could stay home if you got sick. Why play into that negative aspect?
A: What are some words you’ve always said to yourself when getting dressed in the morning?
D: More is not enough. Have a good time. What mood are you in today? Where are you going? What kind of persona do you want to express to the world today? Layer layer layer layer.
A: I wish I was as smart as Deborah.
D: Ok Ari. You know we’ve been friends for a while, and we kind of know each other but now were going to nail it. Do you think your style will be different thirty years from now?
A: Well looking at you, I know that style just improves with getting older, because you know yourself more. Even turning thirty-three now, I’ve found I’ve become more bold and more expressive; I don’t really care what other people think. I see men and women out there who I aspire to be like. I think I’ll hopefully be a mix of Liberace and Cary Grant in thirty years.
D: That’s a great combo. I know you love sparkles and rhinestones; how would you describe that aspect of your style?
A: One way that I connected with my grandmother was first discovering her drawer of costume jewelry. I was five years old and wondered what these things from a different time were; they were all so magical to me. She introduced me to old movies, so I always was attracted to that sort of old Hollywood glamour but with a little bit of sparkle and performance element to it as well. I think as I get older I hope to refine my look a bit. What I love about personal style is when someone can have a look that looks like no one else.
D: Do you think that’s something that you have to grow into? That it’s a process of development?
A: I don’t know. Not for everyone. But I think at a certain point in your life you either get it or you don’t – or sometimes it doesn’t even matter. I’ve always known things that I’ve liked. It’s just about learning how to put them together in a way that presents a more cohesive picture to the world.
The best outfits I’ve put together are when I’m not really thinking about what I’m doing, and I’m just grabbing things from my closet and putting them on and then I realize, “Oh, that actually goes good together.” When I think too much about it, it doesn’t really work. It’s more about playing with texture, color, sparkle, and non sparkle.
D: So how does food play into your life?
A: Well, I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life, starting when I was three years old, so we have something in common there. When I decided to become a vegetarian at that early of an age, I had one grandmother who said, “What the hell are you thinking?” and the other grandmother went out and bought a vegetarian cookbook and started making meals for me. She started making me a broccoli casserole, or a green bean casserole – all of these things. She put so much love into food. My best memories are going to her house and eating around the table. That feeling can never be recreated. With all the ladies that I photograph, food is such an important part of how they’ve stayed so vital. Ruth, who is one hundred and two, has been eating the same thing for forty years. She goes on a lot of cruises and she says she’ll never go crazy on a cruise. She eats exactly how she would: chicken sandwich for breakfast, limited portions, and then every once and again she’ll have her chocolate cake. But I think that our friend Beatrix Ost said, “Food and love is art enough.” I don’t think of food in as a creative way as you do, but I enjoy eating as much as I do shopping.
D: Well it’s still a creative act. Eating is pleasurable, shopping is pleasurable, and it’s a very personable thing. Because I know you choose very personable things to eat.
D: Words to dress by?
A: Forget about what anyone else thinks.
*Ari Seth Cohen and Debra Rapoport, photographed at Lafayette in New York, NY by Danielle Kosann.