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'Advanced Style' Comes To Chicago: An Interview With Ari Seth Cohen

By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 13, 2014 3:00PM

Ilona Smithkin, Joyce Carpati and Lynn Dell in ADVANCED STYLE. Photo by Ari Seth Cohen, New York City.

If there is a secret to aging well, the glittering gals of Advanced Style must know it.

In 2008, Ari Seth Cohen, a recent transplant to New York City, started Advanced Style, a blog depicting the style and stories of Gotham’s vibrant and independent senior set. The blog spawned a series of YouTube videos and, eventually, Advanced Style, a documentary that examines the lives of seven New Yorkers featured on Cohen’s blog whose élan and vital spirit have guided their approach to aging.

In her full-length directorial debut, Lina Plioplyte follows these fashionable women over a two-year period capturing poignant and entertaining moments of her subjects’ day-to-day lives as they challenge conventional ideas of beauty and youth.

In an interview with Chicagoist, Cohen steps out from behind the camera to discuss his fearless, flirtatious subjects, his new photography project for H&M sister store, "& Other Stories," and how stylish seniors in Chicago compare with his beloved New York City.

"When I approach women, I always compliment them on how they look or their style. When I approach men, I say “I really appreciate how they pull themselves together.”"
Chicagoist: Advanced Style started out as a blog which morphed into a photography book, and then a YouTube miniseries, before becoming a documentary. At this point, Advanced Style is really a concept more than anything else.

Ari Seth Cohen: When I started my blog I was really inspired by all the women I saw on the streets of New York and how they lived their lives in an incredibly expressive way. I met Lina Plioplyte, the director of the film, and she asked me if she could start making videos of the women. We organically made these YouTube videos of the women and they were so captivating so we kept filming them and all of a sudden had over 250 hours of footage. We found from the response that we really had an audience for a film and needed to make it a feature, so we launched a really successful Kickstarter campaign and here we are today.

I hope people take something away from the film where they not only have a joyful experience seeing it in the theater, but they will also see the vitality of these women and how hopeful they are for the future. And if it makes the audience want to spend more time with someone older in their life or look forward to getting older, that would be a wonderful thing.

Joyce Carpati (left) and Zelda Kaplan in ADVANCED STYLE. Photos by Ari Seth Cohen, New York City.

Chicagoist: Snapping photos of strangers is de rigueur for millennials. Was it ever a challenge to engage your subjects with the camera?

ASC: Yeah, definitely. I mean, in some instances, some of the ladies have no idea what a blog is, so I have to explain to them that I have this project and it’s a journal that’s online. But, you know, I think the women in New York are very savvy, and with people like Bill Cunningham, they are used to seeing others photographed on the street. The only challenge is keeping up with the women on Madison Avenue—they can walk fairly quickly.

Chicagoist: Some of these women are wonderfully flirtatious—do you flirt with them in return?

ASC: I’m not that flirty, no, but the women definitely can be. Joyce Carpati, who is 81 years old, always tells the story about how we met each other on the street. When I first approached her she said, “Excuse me, young man, I am not a cougar!” And then when I told her what I do, she said “Well, maybe I am!” You know, I think that flirting is a way for them to engage with people, Ilona especially, the 94-year-old in the film flirts with everyone. She flirts with kids, she flirts with mail men, grocery store clerks, and I think that’s her way. I don’t think flirting has to be something that’s sexual, it can be something that really engages people.

Chicagoist: Are there any notable differences between splendiferous seniors living in New York City and those residing in Chicago?

ASC: Older people in New York and Chicago are probably pretty similar because they’re both big cities—but in New York, as I mentioned earlier, people walk. They have to walk to the grocery store, they walk to the library and the museums. You know, these women are very active. They’re out on the street, and they’re used to being seen. I think the great thing about New York is that it really keeps people vital because of the energy and because you have to be in pretty great shape to survive here. I’m sure there are similarities to Chicago.

Chicagoist: You also shoot older men of style. Do they respond differently to your request to photograph them than women do?

ASC: It is a bit of a different response. You know, when I approach women, I always compliment them on how they look or their style. When I approach men, I say “I really appreciate how they pull themselves together” and it is a bit of a different reaction because they think, “Hey, this is just about my clothes.” It is a bit of a different reaction, and it’s harder for me, in America especially, to find the men that really go for it in the way they dress.

"I don’t think flirting has to be something that’s sexual, it can be something that really engages people. "
Chicagoist: What can you tell us about your next book?

ASC: I’m just in the beginning stages of a new book. It’s more of a lifestyle vitality-based book dealing with men and women. It’ll be a photo book of people in their daily lives, the ways they dress and the things that keep them going. There’ll be more written text, and it will really be a guide for how to stay vital as you get older.

Ilona Smithkin in ADVANCED STYLE. Photo by Ari Seth Cohen, New York City.

Chicagoist: H&M’s higher-priced sister brand “& Other Stories” opened its first U.S. store in New York City this month, and they tapped you to shoot a story for the launch. How did that come about?

ASC: Yes, & Other Stories approached me about doing a project with them. We brought Iris [Apfel] on board because of her incredible style, and we had her go and pick out her favorite things from the brand’s latest collection. We were able to shoot in her home. I will always love working with Iris. The photos will be featured on & Other Stories’ website and there will be a small display in the store in Soho. I always love working with brands that are willing to take an opportunity to feature interesting older people in their campaign.

Advanced Style runs Oct. 24 - 30 at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Ari Seth Cohen will be present via Skype for an audience discussion moderated by TV fashion contributor Barbara Glass at the 3:30 p.m. screening Sunday, Oct. 26.