The Genteel
March 5, 2021


Iris Apfel, at home in New York City (Source:

If we were to chart 2011's "Year in Fashion," one constant - from magazine covers to multimedia - would be the industry's heightened preoccupation with age. To say the very least, it has been an important year for redefining youth's place in the fashion world. The industry, as many "outsiders" see it, has traditionally promoted and perpetuated the stereotype of youthful everything. Yet, the latest debate isn't about the stereotype as much as it is about the limit. While models are expected to appear a certain age (legal-ish enough, about 16- to 21-years-old), the reality is that some are only nearing the brink of adolescence. The topic of age is also closely tied to discussions of body image: the younger a model is, the more susceptible she is to developing unhealthy eating habits. The effects of "beauty" standards like this not only on models, but also on the general public, have been debated for as long as Kate Moss ruled the runway and Sassy was still being published. In 2010, Vogue's Anna Wintour appeared at a Harvard Business School public forum alongside designer Michael Kors and model Natalia Vodianova to address this very issue of age v. body image. It was at this very forum that Kors famously declared he would not use models under the age of sixteen anymore, with Wintour further commenting on the "tyranny of [sample] clothes that just barely fit a 13-year-old on the edge of puberty."

While I'm not convinced we've made notable strides in the fight for realistic body image - Psychology Today recently published a "revisiting" of this very issue and the illusion versus reality in fashion magazines - a compelling polarity has emerged within fashion's age game, etching out new definitions of what it means to put a fresh face forward.

10-year-old model Thylane Loubry Blondeau models
in French Vogue (Source: jezebel).

On the business side of things, there are empires being held up by designers in their mid-20s who are not exactly seasoned. If you haven't been following the Olsen twosome, the girls have moved on from tiny television shows and VHS releases to become serious businesswomen headed for the billion-dollar mark and beyond. They're right behind Jessica Simpson's already-there fashion and lifestyle dynasty - and she's barely 31. While the Olsen twins were once the queens of Walmart, they've re-branded their tastes into the luxury market, inspiring retail faith in what the pint-sized party girls-turned-designers-turned-execs have to offer. In 2007, at 21, they launched The Row to critical acclaim and a (somewhat) more affordable line, Elizabeth & James, followed. They're even producing $39,000 backpacks that have sold out. Really. At the end of this month, the twins are expanding their reach to Canadian audiences with the launch of StyleMint, their social media-slash-shopping website that blends personal recommendations with affordable pricing under $50. In September, Balmain's new 26-year-old head designer, Olivier Rousteing, debuted his first collection (Spring 2012) for the prestigious French label, formerly headed by veteran Christophe Decarnin. Although he managed to stay true-to-Balmain-form, Rousteing was a risky choice, pitted against more noteworthy power players at other French houses. (By comparison, Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy is 37 and Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel is 78.) But, just like that, the young ones have begun breaking down walls.

Yes, designers are often prized for their experience as much as they are for their actual skill level and/or raw talent, but the age issue reaches far beyond the garment level. This year alone has seen a rise of the young - like really young - style star. Obvious choices, of course, include girls on the verge of adulthood like 17-year-old Dakota Fanning, but it's the younger ladies like Fanning's own 13-year-old sister, Elle, who have emerged not only in the pages of glossies, but on their covers as well. In June, near-six-foot Elle appeared in a BlackBook magazine photo looking, as many criticized, not so age appropriate, and, earlier this month, the underage sisters covered W magazine, a prime spot on newsstands around the world.

Yet the most unexpected - and reassuring - "trend," amidst all the glorifying of way-younger girls, is the rise of style icons that are well into their so-called "golden years."

Over the last two months, this very lauding of young starlets has come under fire several times for its mixed messages, especially in Europe. Recently, the older Fanning's provocative Marc Jacobs Lola fragrance ad was one in a long string of debates over the UK's Advertising Standards Authority's new initiative to ban "sexy ads" near schools. In another case, Hailee Steinfeld, the barely 15-year-old Oscar-nominated actress who can also be considered a veritable Fanning contemporary, was tapped by Miu Miu to appear in a campaign. The most recent of those ads, featuring Steinfeld sitting on train tracks, was also banned in the UK for its imagery, not its risqué factor. But no other age-related issue in fashion made quite as big a splash this year as when French Vogue published photos of a 10-year-old model looking decidedly "grown-up" in full make-up, heels and super-high-end designer looks, posing with girls her age. Rather than being confined to the pop-culture reporting sphere, the French Vogue controversy erupted and hit every major news outlet in the world, igniting debates on everything from pedophilia to the industry's moral standards. I still can't decide if I am truly "shocked" at a stunt like this because that's what it was- a stunt. Or perhaps I'm just happy that the child models at least had on respectable amounts of clothing, no more revealing than, say, what you would see on child pop star Willow Smith. 

Yet the most unexpected - and reassuring - "trend," amidst all the glorifying of way-younger girls, is the rise of style icons that are well into their so-called "golden years." The most visible among them, and the one to touch me the deepest, is probably Bill Cunningham. Known as the original street fashion photographer, Cunningham is the shutterbug who has long been responsible for filling the pages of the New York Times style-slash-society sections. Now 81, Cunningham was the subject of a documentary released in most major cities this past March, drawing in impressive crowds of underground admirers and followers across America. The film serves as a definitive portrait of an artist who not only had a role in the rise of "candid" fashion photographs-cum-street style (virtually single-handedly), but a man who has captured generations upon generations, trends upon trends, of New Yorkers, both young and old. If nothing else, Cunningham is a testament to passion that can last a lifetime. It was Cunningham who effectively paved the way for photographers-turned-bloggers like Ari Seth Cohen and his website Advanced Style. Cohen started the collection of photographs under the tenet "proof from the wise and silver-haired set that personal style advances with age," and now there's a book coming out in April 2012.

Meryl Streep in January 2012 Vogue (Source: Photograph by Annie Leibovitz).

Another New Yorker breaking the mold, so to speak, when it comes to defining what "young at heart" means is Iris Apfel, the much-loved, highly-esteemed former interior designer with a distinct style, both in optics and in dress. In August, at 90, the NYT dubbed her "fashion's latest pop star," and she recently launched a collection of accessories on the Home Shopping Network. (She has even had her own wardrobe retrospective exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.) Even on the runway, older, every-woman models are making regular appearances. During New York Fashion Week in February, sportswear designer Adrienne Vittadini sprinkled in a cluster of non-models - the oldest was 79 - to showcase her Fall 2011 line. In Toronto, Project Runway Canada winner Sunny Fong has been using "real" models of every age and size each season since his first solo show in 2009. It's a continuous collaboration with The Ben Barry Agency, a local modeling agency with the motto, "Every woman is a real woman."

And now, as we enter 2012, Meryl Streep, at 62, is on the January cover of Vogue, the oldest woman to do so in the history of the magazine's 120 years. It's also the same month Ms. Apfel - who once called herself a "geriatric starlet" - will launch her collaboration of makeup with MAC Cosmetics. I guess, if you were thinking this hard about what age means to fashion, there's no reason not be keen on the public proliferation of non-teen, non-"young" style stars. They represent something other than archaic archetypes that probably won't ever fully die or be free from public judgment. And if we're thinking in dualities, because an issue like age is always its own yang, then the real risky business has only just begun.

Life, etc. will return on January 4, 2012.



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