Age is – as they say in fashion – having a moment.
In trendspeak, that means age is hot right now. And by hot, we mean Joni Mitchell, 71, starring in ads for Yves Saint Laurent; 80-year-old Joan Didion for Céline; and 65-year-old Twiggy for L’Oreal, in January alone. They follow Helen Mirren, Lauren Hutton and Charlotte Rampling in recent major campaigns, and the lesser-known-yet-legendarily-stylish Iris Apfel modeling both Alexis Bittar’s jewelry and Kate Spade’s apparel for Spring 2015.
Let's see: That's seven high-profile gigs for women with an average age of 74.
Clearly, something in fashion is cracking open – at least a bit, at least for this moment, even if it’s more for shock value than for actual sales, as some have opined. (That line of thinking goes: Does Didion’s wearing them make you want to buy those Celine sunglasses? Or is her status as a literary icon just conveying a new degree of cool on the French luxury brand?)
Yet the over-55s bought nearly a third of U.S. clothing and 40 percent of “personal care products and services” in 2013, according to global consulting firm A.T. Kearney (see sidebar). Could advertisers ignore that kind of power?
Whatever it is, Charlotte’s Berhan Nebioglu thinks it arrives not a millisecond too soon.
“It’s about time we are recognized! That we do exist! And we are not invisible!” says Nebioglu, a fashion fixture in Charlotte for a quarter-century or so. She taught modeling at the city’s first Barbizon modeling outpost, circa 1990. She coordinated more than one fashion show (“musical fashion shows,” she specifies) before becoming a longtime uptown-jewelry-shop owner turned rebel with a cause.
“Every time you open a magazine, what do you see? Twenty-year-olds, 18-year-olds trying to sell you all these beauty products ... I am 67 years old. Make sure you put my age in there!
“So many women are so afraid of expressing their age. Why should we hide our age? This is the best that I have ever been in my life. But the beauty and fashion industries are making us feel guilty because we are aging.”
Now, “they’re realizing there is a huge market out there for people like me, people over 55, that they could actually sell their products to.” Seeing Apfel in the Spade ad “really made me feel emotional. I had tears in my eyes.”
Nebioglu wanted to show off some local elegance in the 55+ age range, and Charlotte photographer Jim McGuire liked the idea of portraits that were ad-worthy and Avedon-esque. Here, you see what they put together for The Observer.
The near-absence of older women in fashion spreads and advertising has been “all about fear of aging,” says Nebioglu, and it only recently occurred to her that “we are creating this fear also for the younger generation.” She has a 45-year-old daughter.
“My daughter said, ‘We don’t have people to look up to (in fashion media) who are older and looking good ... We see older women who aren’t fashionable because (they’re told) ‘You’re older now, you shouldn’t be fashionable!’ Is this what we have to look forward to?’
“To me she is so young. But (in magazines), she’s comparing herself to 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds, and she’s ‘old’ now.”
Adding older women to the fashion mix consistently could take many forms, of course – and opinions on what’s needed range wide. Just add an older women to younger models in fashion spreads, say some. No, get more designers actually designing for the older body, say others.
Either way, says Nebioglu, the fashion and beauty industries choosing to make older women visible makes all the difference.
“That says: It’s OK to be older. It’s OK to have wrinkles. It’s OK.
Interested in reading more?
Oscar- and Tony-winning actress Frances McDormand talked about women’s aging and visibility in November with Katie Couric, saying “Adulthood is not a goal. It’s not seen as a gift. Something happened culturally. No one is supposed to age past 45 sartorially, cosmetically, attitudinally.”
Watch the trailer for “Fabulous Fashionistas,” a documentary on women (averaging 80+) aging fashionably.
A profanity-laced “What not to wear when you’re 50” blog post from Huffington Post has gone viral. Its premise: “If you’ve made it to 50 and still need to consult articles on how to dress appropriately then you are so missing out on one of the best things about being over 50.”
The buying power of 55+
The over-55 age group accounted for 30 percent of U.S. clothing sales in 2013, according to global consulting firm A.T. Kearney quoted in the Financial Times in November. That age group also bought about 40 percent of personal care products and services (shampoos, cosmetics and spa days).
If the American clothing market is worth $200 billion, and that broad second category is worth $76 billion – more Kearney numbers quoted by the Times – that’s some serious buying power.
The $276 billion question then becomes: What sells products to that demographic?
Some studies show women say they’re more likely to buy when the model is their age (200 percent more likely, according to one in Canada), while others seem to suggest no difference in buying patterns.
Asked about Charlotte, Southern Shows chairman and longtime fashion aficionado Joan Zimmerman says: “Perhaps the advertisers use younger models because they believe mature women want to look younger. We don’t. We want to look and feel good.”