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The Business of Blogging | Ari Seth Cohen, Advanced Style

On the eve of his documentary film debut, Ari Seth Cohen speaks with BoF on how he has parlayed a personal interest in stylish older women into a profitable business and a platform for challenging perceptions of aging.
Ari Seth Cohen with Mimi Weddell | Source: Courtesy Ari Seth Cohen
  • Lisa Wang

NEW YORK, United States — "Is 60 the New 20?" "The Women in Their 60s, 70s and 80s Who Are Shaking Up Fashion," "Meet the 62-Year-Old Swimsuit Model!" In recent months, countless headlines have proclaimed the rise of the stylish older woman. A spate of recent advertising campaigns have featured several women over the age of 60, including Jessica Lange for Marc Jacobs Beauty, Charlotte Rampling for Nars cosmetics, and Jacky O'Shaughnessy for American Apparel.

But for Ari Seth Cohen, the photographer and self-proclaimed "old lady expert" behind the blog Advanced Style, women over 60 have never gone out of style. The blogger began roaming the streets of New York City in 2008, spotting sartorially gifted seniors and photographing them for a then-nascent street style blog which, roughly six years later, has attracted a respectable following of about 100,000 unique monthly visitors, according to figures supplied by Cohen. "I did create a niche at a time when the population of older people is bigger than ever," he said.

Cohen has also befriended many of the spirited and stylish people who feature on Advanced Style and the community that the blogger has built around the site has brought him credibility as an advocate for older women. He has parlayed this position into opportunities such as a photography book with Powerhouse Books, work for brands like Coach and Karen Walker, and a Kickstarter-funded documentary slated to premiere on April 29th at Toronto's Hot Docs film festival. But perhaps most crucially, for Cohen, he has transformed his blog into a platform for challenging common perceptions about aging and speaks at conferences about advancing the rights of the elderly.

Cohen’s appreciation for older women stems from his childhood. Growing up in San Diego, he was close to both his grandmothers, who instilled in him a love for fashion, old movies and vintage photographs. “For them, style was an inherent thing. They woke up in the morning to get dressed to go check mail, to go to the grocery store. It was something ingrained in them and part of the culture of the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s to always be dressed up,” said Cohen, who recalls being encouraged by his maternal grandmother Bluma to rummage through his grandparents’ closets.

Bluma, who had graduated from Columbia University in the 1930s and was previously a librarian in New York, regaled Cohen with stories about the city for which she had a deep affinity and to which she longed to return. After he left to study art history in Seattle, his grandmother fell ill and Cohen began shuttling back and forth between Seattle and San Diego to help his mother take care of her. When she died, with savings from his job as a buyer for the now-defunct Seattle menswear store Blackbird, Cohen decided to move to New York to experience the city his grandmother had loved so dearly.

He began working as a supervisor at the bookstore of the New Museum for Contemporary Art, located on the Bowery. “It was right around there that I started seeing all these incredibly dressed, vital, active, just really incredible older women in the street and, I think, in some ways, they reminded me of my grandmother. And so in between selling books, if I would see someone outside I would go out and take their photograph,” Cohen recalled.

One of his first friends in the city, Mimi Weddell, was an actress in her 90s who Cohen first met at the San Diego screening of her movie Hats Off, months before he decamped for New York. "I saw this woman and I was like, 'Why do we not know this woman? Why aren't women like this being featured in campaigns, being featured in magazines?'"

Using Blogspot, Cohen began posting his photos online at a time when street style photo-blogs like Scott Schuman's The Sartorialist were quickly gaining popularity and influence. But Cohen noted the dearth of older people in street style imagery. "It happened at the right time before anyone else had done anything else," he said.

"The response! From women emailing me saying their perceptions of older women were changing to younger women emailing me to say they couldn't wait to get older — I saw that there was audience for what I was doing," added Cohen, who was soon the subject of profile in The New York Times, which sparked Cohen's first inkling that there might be a bigger future for his passion project.

The tipping point came in 2010, when department store Selfridges asked Cohen to contribute street style images to “Forever Shop,” a pop-up at the retailer’s London flagship. The project would take one month to complete, too much time for Cohen to take off from his job at the bookstore. “That opportunity, I think, was the point where I was able to begin to think about the blog’s potential — and I quit my job at the museum.”

Interestingly for a blogger, traditional media — including print and film — have played an important role in Cohen’s rise. “Not only was my grandmother a librarian, so I have an appreciation for books, but at the same time, there is this world of older women who buy books, who go see movies, and do that more than I’d say they’d do other things,” he reflected. “So I don’t know if it was something I thought about, but it was just kind of the world I am in.”

Early on, Powerhouse Books, a division of publishing giant Random House, approached him to produce an art book based on his blog, but Cohen waited until he was comfortable undertaking the endeavour and found a literary agent, who helped him obtain an advance. The Advanced Style book, first published by Powerhouse in May 2012, is now in its seventh printing and still earns Cohen a significant portion — 40 percent, last year — of his total income.

The ensuing yearlong promotional tour spawned other opportunities as well as relationships with media outlets like The Guardian. Newspapers soon began licensing photos from Cohen to feature alongside stories about the elderly and aging. In the meantime, he also began running advertisements on his growing blog using Google Ads and the AOL ad network. Last year, ad revenue and image licensing fees, totalling between $2,000 to $3,000 a month, made up about 30 percent of his income. Speaking engagements, consulting work and advertising campaigns shot for Coach and Karen Walker (featuring women who frequently appear on his blog) comprised the remainder of his revenue last year.

His latest project, a documentary film made with director Lina Plioplyte, was funded with $55,000 from 866 backers on crowdfunding site Kickstarter in mid-2012. (Top backers pledged $5,000 or more and were credited as associate producers in the film’s credits and treated to dinner with cast members). “Initially, Lina, the director and I, we just started filming small videos for the blog,” said Cohen. “And after awhile we just kept on filming these ladies because they were so engaging.” A short clip that appeared on in 2011 was viewed more than one million times, encouraging the Cohen and Plioplyte to commit to the full-length film, which was completed in 2012 after three years of shooting and one and a half years of editing.

"Our goal is for it to be seen by as many people as possible," said Cohen of the film, also called Advanced Style. So far, he and Plioplyte have engaged Dogwoof, a UK-based documentary film distributor, to handle international distribution, but are still searching for a North America distributor. "For now, its only theatrical release is in the UK because that's where our distributor is and they were the first ones to get their hands on the film. But once it starts hitting the festivals, we'll know more about where it will go."

Unlike many of his blogging peers, brand collaborations are not a priority for Cohen, who believes that “brands are still afraid of working with older women. Everything I do is a collaboration between the women and [myself]... I want to have the same consistent message about aging and style and changing people’s perceptions of aging.”

For Cohen, aging stylishly transcends fashion alone. And to that end, Cohen is not only planning a second book about how older women maintain their vitality, but “developing the concept of the blog to be more lifestyle-based. I’ve started to gather a team of different women to write for the blog — and I’ve been talking to some editors about creating a space.”

Cohen’s consulting jobs transcend fashion as well. One of his clients makes “aids for daily living” for the elderly. “People still don’t understand how to market towards older men and women,” he said. “I always found everything as far as advertising for older people either depressing or just kind of… brands don’t understand that just because a woman is 80 years old means she doesn’t think with a youthful approach to fashion and lifestyle.”

“In the future I want to start working with senior living homes and potentially working in consulting trying to make better opportunities for older people. I’d like to own one, one day! I don’t know if the blog is something I’m doing forever but for now it’s great.”

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