A Sunday with Ari Seth Cohen

Words: Augustus Britton
Images: Claire Cottrell

May 15 2016

This is not about fashion, style or aging. The book, documentary and life’s devotion of Ari Seth Cohen, Advanced Style, is about phenomena of nature. In his roadmap of the alchemy of time, flowers do not fade, they only get brighter. The colors of his sexagenarian, septuagenarian, octogenarian, and novogenarians — keep multiplying, like some epilogue to Fantasia. The transformation, the epiphany of beauty developing with age, flourishing, reaching out until all you see is a vision of pure optimism.

Advanced Style IS the new guide to aging. Not only with grace, but with sex appeal, insouciance, stick-tuitiveness and creativity. This is not a fringe book or project. It is THE book about HOW. TO. LIVE.

I meet Ari Seth Cohen at a befitting epicenter of reinvention—the Rosebowl flea market in Pasadena. The 36 year old creator of what was once a simple blog called Advanced Style, has segued this into a documentary and two books, one of which is newly released by powerHouse Books entitled Advanced Style: Older and Wiser.

“Why call it ‘advanced’?” I ask.

“I wanted a word that was approachable. A lot of people are intimidated, or… sadly turned off by the word old…” he says.

Along with Ari is one of the subjects for the book and his close friend, Sarah Jane Adams.

As I speak to them, light bulbs that never seem to have been on in the past begin to illuminate. So: life force is life force. This whole thing, this aura that Ari and Sarah seem to be carrying with them is beyond cultural expectation, stepping into the realm of the fantastical possibilities of nature.

Encountering them is like getting that first glimpse at some magnificent tree that is housing thousands of years of age and is still vibrant with energy and bleeding natural luster. And in regards to the subjects of Advanced Style, may that blood be bedazzled, flecked with gold dust, spattered with glitter and wearing eyelashes the color of fire.

The reason your eyes flutter as you look at the people in Ari Seth Cohen’s book when you pass them by on the street is because there is a purity to them all. This is something that is undeniable. It’s something you really wish you would let yourself have, even just a little bit of, which is…liberation.

Let me bring it back a moment for us laymen who aren’t quite up to snuff: you don’t need to be some magician to pull off the Advanced Style aesthetic. It is merely a way of living instinctually. Living with your true élan that Mr. Cohen believes we can all share, “it’s not about thinking about what other people think about you…and then you relate to the world that way,” he says, “and in the morning when you’re getting dressed it’s really for you…”

I lean in, touching his coat, which is some kind of exotic cardigan covered in a shining, beaded peacock? was it a peacock or some kind of tiger? it doesn’t really matter, he says Suzi Click, one of his subjects for Advanced Style made it for him after collecting fabric from various places like China…again, I lean in, “but Ari, I can’t dress like Prince. I want to dress like Prince and I admittedly used to wear my mother’s four inch gold disco platforms around the house, but I can’t dress like Prince (Rest In Peace)…”

My voice trails off, I’m whining a little bit. Ari doesn’t go for whining, I can tell, nor does Sarah-Jane Adams. “The only one stopping you is yourself,” Sarah says, before Ari can answer me. Sarah is a striking chick, she’s got white hair that curls elegantly and whimsically down her ears. She’s a gemologist that lives in Australia and says the only ‘work’ she’ll ever get done is having her eyes fixed so she can focus more closely on creating jewelry. Sarah loves Adidas (the three stripes, as she calls it) and hints at her favorite hashtag MY WRINKLES ARE MY STRIPES…

Oh, Christ this is all too good to be true, I’m thinking. This is all too honest and daring. I start feeling giddy. It’s kind of unnerving because I don’t know how this is rubbing off on me so quickly. Maybe it’s the bad cup of coffee from the vendor right next to the guy playing bagpipes to the crowd of people at the Flea. But no, I’m virile, I’m in touch…it’s Ari and Sarah’s energy that’s permeating the scene.

I can’t help but mention my grandmother, 88 year-old actress Estelle Parsons, known for her academy award winning role in Bonnie and Clyde and trailblazing roles on Broadway for the last half century. I think of her, the one who still saunters around Manhattan with her elbows at her sides and her hands in the air taking no shit, a real spitfire. I think of my mother and aunt who dress like banshees in Issey Miyake and go in for Robert Piguet’s inimitable Fracas fragrance and collect Morrocan furniture and do yoga every day and live for the preservation of their children. I can’t help but hope I have some of the Advanced Style outlook running through my bloodstream.

And it was there, in the blood and DNA that it all came to Ari. He grew up in San Diego and developed a sixth sense for the spectacular that lives in all things old through his grandparents, particularly his beloved grandmother Bluma, who encouraged him to move to New York City and pursue some artistic career. I imagine her impeccably coiffed, sipping chamomile tea with a jeweled pinky in the air, leaning up against the back of an old rattan lounge, speaking to Ari gently, yet with force, “just go, my love…somewhere…how about New York? I went to Columbia (which she did), you know? Do what you want. Life is everlasting…”

“But where does this come from for these women (and men)? Were they born with it? Some affinity for playing dress up?” I ask, adding, “although I don’t think this is costume. If it were I believe it would all be more of a one off thing with how your subjects dress, but no, this is day in, day out…” I’m trying to get to some point I can’t really put my finger on…

“What?” Ari says, fixing his silver glasses on his lightly stubbled face.

“What’s the impetus? For it all…” I say.

“Well, they all seem to have that story of that one first piece of clothing they found that changed their perspective and approach to life. Or entering some particular closet when they were younger that was magical.” Ari says, continuing, looking wistfully at the swirling clouds, “then they get to a point where they’re really honed in…and they’ve either gotten bolder or more precise about what they decide to wear.”

Ari is the arbiter elegantiae for a group no younger than 60 He has created the anti-ageism movement with Advanced Style. Any time you see contemporary advertising featuring an older gentlelady or gentleman, you would be hard-pressed not to thank Mr. Cohen.

After speaking with Ari and Sarah I realized that the beauty (and innocence) inherent in Advanced Style is that it isn’t about the clothes, the clothes are “your armor” as Sarah says, they are merely an extra bit of soulful expression. Sarah wipes a wisp of sexy white curl out of the way of her bright eyes and stares at me. I might actually be turned on, but I take it easy considering her husband David, a bearded man wearing a Knicks hat is sitting right next to us all,  “Quite frankly, if by the time you are our age, and you still need fashion advice, well…if your style is beige on beige on beige and you do it well…well that is fine…” And then Ari echoes the sentiment, “and we don’t like to offer fashion advice…”

Ari and Sarah speak over each other and in between each other as if they are thinking on the same bridge. I’m starting to understand that this is a spiritual thing: a spirit of optimism, an outlook second to none.

There is a certain responsibility in Advanced Style as well. Ari takes this venture seriously and he believes ageism needs to be given more attention. “Fashion to me was a way to connect people to aging, and getting people to say ‘wow, aging is cool’ and I know that sounds cliché, but yeah of course the older woman are cooler because you have all this life experience…” he says.

Ari wants to debunk this myth that aging is just moving you closer to death. Physically maybe, but let’s allow ourselves to be deeper than that. A beautiful dance that only grows, and before you know it you’ve got a whole ballroom full moves informing your motives and the motives of all that you come in contact with around you.

The universe is sweet. I saw the Advanced Style documentary some time ago and immediately related to the elegance and sincerity of its mission. I fell in love with little Ilona Royce Smithkin, who is 95 and looks to be something like three feet tall. A true laughing elf of a person. She makes her own eyelashes, that she paints the color of her fancy. Ilona decided to be a burlesque dancer when she turned something like 80. And I have friends at the age of 30 who are…tired. I’ll have to sigh for them, I guess.

My point being, you can’t come in contact with the Advanced Style mantra without doing an about face on your life’s voyage. You’re sick? so get better. You’re hair is junk? well fix it. You wanna climb El Capitan but you’re in a wheelchair? well let’s figure this shit out and do it…because the view from the top is going to be so damn beautiful.

Augustus Britton is a writer, editor, and filmmaker residing in Los Angeles, you can read more of his work online

Claire Cottrell is a film director and photographer living in Los Angeles, California.