c.2015 New York Times News Service
c.2015 New York Times News Service
For the last three years at about this time — which is to say, in the nascent days of the new year, when the calendar lies clear and the sense of possibility is at its apex — Selfridges, the British department store, has dedicated its windows, all 13 of them, to a new class of Bright Young Things: dozens of up-and-coming stars of fashion and art, including names like Simone Rocha, Christopher Shannon and Maarten van der Horst, who it thinks will shape what we wear and how we shop in the year to come.
New year, new generation!
But this year, things look a bit different. On Thursday, the emporium will unveil its first windows of 2015, all dedicated to the work of Bright Old Things (BOTs): 14 men and women of a certain age, who changed careers late in life, moving into the worlds of fashion and art at a time most people start thinking about saying goodbye to fashionable things.
“It’s traditional at this time of year to focus on what’s new and what’s next,” Linda Hewson, Selfridges’ creative director and the woman behind the project, said when I called to discuss the initiative. “We decided to turn that on its head.”
The young are so — well, old hat. Or so it increasingly seems.
Selfridges, after all, is simply the latest member of a movement arguably commenced in 2010 by the photographer Ari Seth Cohen and his “Advanced Style” blog/book/documentary series, which was quickly followed by the 2013 British documentary “Fabulous Fashionistas,” featuring the happening wardrobes of six women with an average age of 80; the elevation of the nonagenarian Iris Apfel to icon status (she was most recently the subject of a documentary by Albert Maysles); and a river of beauty- and fashion-ad campaigns featuring “older” women: Charlotte Rampling (68), Helen Mirren (69), Diane Keaton (69) and (this week) Joan Didion (80).
Even the 47-year-old Julia Roberts is currently the face of Givenchy, and three unnamed grandmas star in Dolce & Gabbana’s new ads.
Oiled by the “longevity revolution,” so named by a 2014 Bank of America Merrill Lynch report on the “silver economy,” which found that the average wealth of 50-plus households in the United States is $765,000; the average for 50-plus households in Britain is 541,000 pounds (about $690,000), and it’s 723,000 pounds for ages 60 to 64. Add the shrinking spending power of the employment-challenged younger generation, and fashion’s sudden embrace is shaping up to be a bona fide trend.
But while it’s one thing to pay lip (and advertising) service to the importance of the mature market, it’s another thing entirely to design for it. And the truth is, catwalks are still speckled by short skirts and skinny trousers, the sheer and the sleeveless.
“Here’s my motto,” said Sue Kreitzman, 75, one of the Selfridges BOTs (and a former cookbook writer and TV personality, now an artist): “Don’t wear beige — it might kill you.” She was referring to the lack of choice for older women when it comes to fashion. She has her clothes made for her, customized by artist friends.
I remember sitting at a Bottega Veneta show a few seasons ago, watching a parade of pencil skirts and peplum sweaters, and trying to figure out why they looked so different — and then realizing it was because if I were a child, this is exactly how I would want my mother to look: elegant, streamlined, not old but grown-up. It was a surprising idea (not that such garments would be made but that they would show up on a runway).
Which speaks to a reality that the Selfridges project exposes for all to see: the fashion world’s contradictory relationship with the concept of age.
Because here’s the thing: The BOTs range in age from women like Molly Parker, 82 (a fashion writer turned painter), to Sand Laurenson (a policewoman turned artist), who is in her 40s, which, speaking as someone in her 40s, does not seem that old. Middle-aged, sure. But old?
Well, Hewson said, somewhat uncomfortably, “We really removed age from the equation.”
“We decided age was irrelevant — what mattered was the career change,” she said. The title was just a hook to keep things consistent.
The cynical response would be “only in the fashion world,” where the downward slope of aging occurs somewhere around 27, and the message is often a perversion of Keats’ “beauty is truth” lines from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is youth, youth beauty; that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”
Because you should also know that the fashion world is largely run by older people, from designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani, each in his early 80s, Ralph Lauren (75) and Donna Karan (66) to the editors Anna Wintour, Carine Roitfeld and Franca Sozzani, all in their 60s.
Indeed, that world is so heavily tilted to the older generation that designers like the 36-year-olds Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler are generally known as “the boys,” and the Milanese team Tommaso Aquilano and Roberto Rimondi of Aquilano.Rimondi, in their mid-40s, are universally referred to as “young designers.”
Here’s the disconnect: On the one hand, fashion pays endless aesthetic homage to youth; on the other, it remains firmly in the thrall, and power, of the mature. Even for an industry that has made something of an art form out of holding contradictory ideas at the same time (loving both pelts and pets, for example; showing spring/summer in autumn/winter), this is hard to reconcile.
Is it sheer hypocrisy? A terrible case of the Dorian Grays?
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Part of the problem may be that for years, from its birth in the late 19th century under Charles Frederick Worth, aka “the father of couture,” high fashion was largely the province of the grown-up. It catered to women who could afford it, which implied a certain stage in life had been reached.
Post-1960s, Saint Laurent and the rise of ready-to-wear and street style, all that changed. Suddenly the old names on the label had to focus on the new ones. And thus it has been ever since, forcing fashion world denizens of today, who are not oblivious to the issue, to jump through some interesting hoops.
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“As it relates to fashion as a whole, I think the concept of ‘young’ points to being relevant and adaptable, excited about newness,” the 31-year-old designer Joseph Altuzarra said by email. “And having fun. And I think in a way that is more a frame of mind than an age thing.”
The designer Erdem Moralioglu (in his late 30s), agreed. “Young can be a 70-year-old with a cheeky smile; old can be a 21-year-old who is tired with a smirk,” he said. “It’s all relative.”
But I’m not entirely convinced. After all, at a certain point in life there is nothing relative about melting triceps — they are an incontrovertible fact — or a thickened middle or, dare I say it, back fat. They need to be taken into account.
If there really is a new market class of 60- and 70- and 80-year-olds with disposable incomes and minds of their own, perhaps it’s time that fashion, and designers, grappled with their needs.
Some of them are beginning to. You can see it in Altuzarra’s gingham suiting; the Christian Dior frock coats (admittedly, the latter were worn over board shorts, but still). “I think it’s changing,” Kreitzman said. “It’s necessary.”
You can’t have your consumers and not cater to them, too. I, for one, am old enough to know that.