Originally published in
Sunday Times SA
September 2015
"It's more important to think about the lasting impact that these advertisements have and how they can shape our views towards ageing"
Photography Ari Seth Cohen

Kim Kardashian has nothing on Joan Didion. When the 80-year-old literary genius was unveiled as the face of the SS15 Céline campaign earlier this year, the news – and Juergen Teller’s image of her looking suitably recalcitrant in black sunglasses – near enough broke the internet. Trending across social media in minutes, it made headlines around the globe from glossies to broadsheets to gushing fashion blogs.

Didion is far from the only mature lady to front campaigns for major fashion houses in recent times. The same season, Saint Laurent caused a similar stir with its advert starring 71-year old folk heroine Joni Mitchell. And 93-year-old Iris Apfel nestled up to Karlie Kloss for Kate Spade and played on her unparalleled taste in jewellery for Alexis Bittar. This trend has been emerging for some time. Marc Jacobs has worked with both Cher (69) and Jessica Lange (66). Helen Mirren (69) and Diane Keaton (68) are spokeswomen for L’Oreal. Nars collaborated with Charlotte Rampling (69). Susan Sarandon (68) has signed to Uniqlo and Neiman Marcus. And Lauren Hutton (71) has strutted her stuff for Lucky Brand. Senior models have been in high demand too - Daphne Selfe (85) for Dolce & Gabbana, Leslie Winer (61) for Vivienne Westwood and Jackie O’Shaughnessy (63) for American Apparel.

So on planet fashion it’s never been more hip to be a venerable dame as it is right now. This seeming shift away from an obsession with being young toward a more diverse appreciation of beauty is breaking with conventions that have been in place since the youth quake of the 1960s, which ironically is when some of of these golden girls were in their so-called prime. So what is at work here? Is fashion really taking on a refreshing new mind-set?

“The industry has become jaded with the tried and trusted formulas and we’re all suffering image fatigue,” says Sara Hemming, a leading visual director who has worked on campaigns for Stella McCartney, Prada and Dior. “That’s why brands are trying a lot harder to cast women who make a statement and resonate on an emotional level. Most young models don’t have that. Whereas someone like Joan Didion has integrity and is someone we admire, which is why Phoebe Philo knew she could evoke the brand’s DNA.”

The same could be said of all of these women. They’ve lived exceptional lives and exude an inner confidence that makes them attractive irrespective of age. For millennials they are the icons to aspire to. For thirty and forty somethings, they’re living proof that it’s possible to grow old with grace – and good shoes. “The women who can afford to buy luxury goods tend to be older, and want fashion that has meaning. That’s why these ads sell,” adds Hemming. “Ideals of beauty are always changing, that’s the nature of fashion, but right now it’s about unusual looks and standing out.”

In South Africa, Jackie Burger has always championed natural beauty and is admired for embracing her grey hair. The former Elle editor has recently founded Salon58, a series of curated events where intelligent women share a sensorial discovery of local fashion, food and art. Now 56-years-young, she’s as striking as ever but admits it takes effort to keep confident. “Working in fashion, it’s inevitable that as your years shift, you begin to question yourself. Am I still relevant? Should I do something about my appearance? But you have to walk your talk and be authentic to yourself,” Burger says.

With maturity comes a fantastic wardrobe, one that Burger has expertly edited over the years. “When you’re young it’s your prerogative to experiment. As you grow older you rely on the emotion of wearing a certain colour or pattern. Your respect for quality and cut becomes profound, you address tailoring and appreciate beautiful fabrics that sit and flow on your body.” Her style icons hail the bygone era of retro glamour when being young and thin weren’t the only goals. “Katharine Hepburn’s white shirts, Simone de Beauvoir’s turbans, Marlene Dietrich’s pinstriped suits – and the scarlet mouth that goes with it. I look to pioneering women who never failed to live their strength and creativity.”

Burger welcomes mature campaign girls and cautions against crying wolf on the industry. “Baby boomers grew up to be astute consumers so it would be stupid to ignore them. Iris and Joni are representative of their generation and we admire their liberated aesthetic. But this all needs to be sustained. It’s easy to call it sensationalism but we have the choice to support it or not. There is a need for us all to enjoy the luxury of substance again.” Does she plan to still be making a sartorial statement at Apfel’s age? “I hope so. I’ll be wearing my rings and red lipstick and something deliciously crazy.”

What all of these campaign stars share is their fame. It’s much easier to stay looking perfect – and in the public’s consciousness - with the accoutrements of a celebrity lifestyle behind you. It also has to be said, they’re all white too. With rare exceptions such as Iman who is still landing magazine covers at the age of 59, and Pat Cleveland, who has modelled alongside her daughter Anna for both Zac Posen and Lanvin, older women of colour remain woefully under represented.

Marketing executive Abrima Erwiah, co-founder of Ghana-based ethical fashion line Studio One Eighty Nine with Rosario Dawson, takes inspiration from her aunt Naomi Sims. She rose to prominence as part of this first generation of black supermodels including Iman, Cleveland, Grace Jones, Toukie Smith, Peggy Dillard and Bethann Hardison. Her 1969 LIFE magazine cover spearheaded the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement and continues to resonate today. “It’s important for young people of all races to celebrate people of all races, genders, shapes, sizes and backgrounds. If we only tell one story (whatever story that may be) then how can we grow?” says Erwiah. “If you consider that the average age in Africa is 18.6, it’s clear we have a lot of young people who need to see our heroes grow older and have staying power. We need to know that we will be here tomorrow. And we need to learn how to develop and have a place in society at every age. Brands have a great opportunity to speak to a wide demographic by working with diverse models who reflect their audience’s interests.”

Today older women of every creed have achieved more professionally than previous generations and aren’t ready to retire from society or style any time soon. It’s these unsung seasoned ladies that Sue Bourne’s hugely successful film Fabulous Fashionistas puts in the limelight. The award-winning director chose six women living in the UK with the average age of 80, each with her own inimitable dress sense. “My films are about finding the extraordinary in the apparently ordinary,” Bourne says. “From Bridgette who lives on a pittance but puts amazing looks together from charity shop buys to Baroness Trumpington who has a clothing catalogue fetish and goes to the hairdresser every week, they’re all fantastic role models. Everyone is scared of old age but these women are still squeezing the pips out of life.”

Across the pond Ari Seth Cohen has been photographing clotheshorses of a certain age in New York since 2008 for his blog Advanced Style. Now a book and film, his output has partly inspired fashion’s love affair with mature couture. He has worked on castings for Karen Millen and Lanvin and the blog inspired Marc Jacobs’ AW12 collection. “The senior set has been ignored for so long so it’s wonderful to see a rise in the use of older faces in advertising,” Cohen says. “I think it’s more important to think about the lasting impact that these advertisements have and how they can shape our views towards aging, rather than worrying if this is a gimmick or not. It would be a smart move and an incredible shift in the way we view visual marketing if this was to continue.”

“Blogging has opened up our visual catalogue and created a diversification,” he adds. “These women are showing us all that beauty, brains and style don't end, but rather grow with age. There is a sense of freedom in the way they dress and live their lives. I hear from young girls everyday, saying that they are no longer afraid of getting older. They can't wait to look and live there lives like these women. For me, that is really rewarding.”

Sue Kreitzman stars in Advanced Style and Fabulous Fashionistas and earlier this year Selfridges selected her for its Bright Old Things campaign alongside a cast of other veteran creatives. A former food writer with 27 books to her name, in 1998 she turned her talents to becoming an artist instead. Now 75, her primitive paintings and “assemblages” of goddesses and heroines are created from acrylic, nail varnish and found objects. She exhibits widely and has become a street style star thanks to her statement accessories and unique outfits, which are all handmade from vintage fabrics. No wonder Tatty Devine has designed a necklace in her honour. “When I leave my flat, I cannot bear to leave art and colour behind so I wrap myself in both and sashay forth into the world. I am quite famous for my 'walking collage' style. It brings me much joy,” Kreitzman says.

Her notoriety puts winds in the sails to what she calls today’s “old lady revolution.” All women – and men – can take courage from her exuberant style and lead by her indomitable example. “We are living longer, we are living better, we are vital and valuable members of the populace, and we refuse to be invisible!”