Why the Over-65 Crowd is Conquering Fashion

The fashion industry is all about trends--and that extends to the models as well as the clothes. One month it's all about gap-tooth smiles, and the ne
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Hayley Phelan
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The fashion industry is all about trends--and that extends to the models as well as the clothes. One month it's all about gap-tooth smiles, and the ne
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The fashion industry is all about trends--and that extends to the models as well as the clothes. One month it's all about gap-tooth smiles, and the next it's about curvy bods and boobies. Still, there seems to be a general 'type' in fashion lately--think tall, think slim, think white, and think young, as in possibly-still-in-high-school young. So, it goes without saying that there hasn't been much of a place for models over the age of 60 in the industry. That is, until recently.

Earlier this month, American Apparel cast a 61-year-old in their ads, and then just two weeks ago, Lanvin's fall 2012 campaign broke featuring not one but two ladies over the age 60 (62, and 82, respectively). And, most recently, Bulgari released its Fall 2012 ads starring 60-year-old Isabella Rossellini. Fashion, it seems, has found a new model muse--and she's over the age of 60.

A little ole blog could be responsible for this trend towards embracing senior models. Advanced Style, begun by Ari Seth Cohen in 2008, has been profiling the inspiring street style of every day senior citizens (it's basically the Sartorialist for the elderly set) and the site's success--Cohen recently released a book and has a documentary in the works--goes to show that more and more people are beginning to pay attention to this older demographic. In fact, it was Cohen who helped cast Lanvin's campaign.

"I have definitely noticed an increase in the visibility of older models since I started Advanced Style four years ago," Cohen said. Patty Sicular, a model manager who has worked with the 'Legends Division' (that's the group that represents older models) at Trump Models since the late '80s, agrees. "In 1987, I started working with 'older models,' which back then, meant models in their late 20's," Sicular told us. "Then, years later, when we got a great booking for a model age in her 30's, we cheered; then, we started getting demands for models in her 40s, then 50s, and now, the sky is the limit."

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Why It's Happening

While fashion's sudden interest in the over-sixty set seems surprising, it makes a lot of sense when you consider that the Baby Boom generation--the most sizable population group in the United States--is now between the ages of 48 and 66. And, at the risk of stating the obvious: They're only growing older.

Currently the over-65 crowd makes up for more than 8% of the world's population--and it's expected to grow to 9% by 2016, according to Magdalena Kondej, head of apparel research at market research firm Euromonitor. Because the average life expectancy keeps growing older, we can expect these numbers to swell.

"Older people make up the largest part of the population and they are tired of being ignored," Advanced Style's Cohen told me. "Media either tends to ignore the senior set, or casts aging in a negative light. But with the internet and blogger boom images outside of the fashion industry have become very influential. Now, brands have taken notice and are realizing that they have to market towards 'real' people." And increasingly, 'real'--as in 'average'--means older.

What's more, being 'elderly' doesn't mean what it used to. "The over 65s in developed economies are the fittest and most active in history, thanks to healthy and plentiful eating, good medical care and an active lifestyle," Kondej said. "[Because of] these lifestyle and attitude changes, being over 65 is no longer considered being over the hill."

Of course, brands aren't just reaching out to seniors for the sake of inclusion. They're doing it because there's lots of money to be made. "One of the most interesting trends we are observing is that elderly consumers these days are more inclined to spend their money," Kondej said. "The preconception of older consumers is that they tend to be more set in their ways than their younger counterparts, more frugal and less hedonistic, and more likely to save than spend freely. However, while this is not untrue, as attitudes to ageing have changed, a growing number of over 60s are increasingly drawing equity on their houses or taking on debt rather than leaving their assets to offspring."

"In addition, in Western Europe, the age group with the greatest rise in average annual gross income between 2006 and 2011 was the over 65s, seeing growth of 3.9% in real terms," she added.

So, basically, not only is the elderly population bigger and healthier than ever--it's also richer. And far, far less thrifty. With the economy still in tumult, and unemployment still high among Millenials, it makes sense that fashion brands are hedging their bets and starting to go after the comparatively flush senior citizen crowd.

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How Brands Are Targeting The Senior Citizen Demographic

"This [financial and lifestyle] shift [among seniors] brings with it both opportunities and challenges for apparel retailers." Kondej told me.

It's true: While some companies--like, say, American Apparel--are beginning to target the elderly demographic, a demo that, let's be honest, probably wasn't on their radar a couple of years ago, brands that have always marketed to the over-65 crowd have to try different strategies to talk to this 'new' senior citizen.

"I have seen campaigns use older models in a very patronizing way," Cohen said. But in 2012, that no longer flies. The elderly today are not just white-haired grandmas and grandpas: They're vibrant, empowered individuals with a life and style all their own (though, of course, they may still be grandmas and grandpas). One need only to look at Cohen's blog for proof. On a recent post, Cohen wrote about his friend Rose, an NYC woman with a busy social calendar who just happens to be 100-years-old. "[Rose and the Advanced Style ladies] have great attitudes, keep busy, and live their lives to the fullest," Cohen wrote.

Women as inspiring and stylish as Rose--and many of the other Advanced Style subjects--can't be ignored by the fashion industry anymore.

"For the past few years brands have been reaching out to me for help with how to reach this important demographic," Cohen said. "The most simple advice I can give is to feature men and women that relate to the demographic a brand is trying to reach. Older people want to see someone they can relate to and can be inspired by. Make campaigns uplifting, inspiring, and aspirational."

Slowly but surely, the way seniors are being targeted in ads is beginning to change--and that's creating more and more opportunity for older models. In the past, elderly models had been relegated to dusty ‘age-appropriate’ jobs like fronting a pharmaceutical ad, or shilling assisted living products. No longer. In the span of her career, Sicular has worked with such talents as Carol Alt, Carmen Dell’Orefice and Beverly Johnson-–women who scream high fashion not adult diapers. And if HBO's new documentary About Face has taught us anything, it's that these classic supermodels, now in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, are no less beautiful--or captivating--then when they began their careers.

"[My approach has been] to build up the [Legends] division to mirror the younger division, letting the clients see how beautiful these women are, demanding similar pay structures, demanding the respect they deserve and placing these models in the most prestigious magazines, campaigns, television commercials and catalogs" Sicular told us. "I'm very lucky, as I've been working at Trump Model Management [and our] President, Corinne Nicolas really 'got it.'"

In turn, these stunning older models have given regular senior folk a high fashion image to aspire to--and, along with people like Cohen's Rose, they're helping to smash preconceived notions about what it means to age.

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

Going Forward: Is This Just Another Trend? Right now, it seems like older models are definitely having a moment. But fashion is a fickle place. So, will the over-65 set continue to conquer the fashion industry--or will this trend merely die out?

All the experts we spoke with agreed it's probably the former. Considering demographic trends--an aging population, longer life expectancy, bigger spending habits--and the greater awareness the internet has brought to senior citizens' full (and stylish) lives, it seems the fashion industry will continue to embrace seniors.

Only don't expect fashion to do a complete 180. While it's true that more and more brands are catering to senior citizens--and it's even true that some younger people have taken to emulating the elderly (ahem, Tavi)--this is fashion, after all, and youth still reigns supreme. And though older people may have more money to spend, they're not exactly popping over to Zara or the Gap every two weeks. "The primary difference between younger and older consumers in terms of apparel shopping is a difference in priority of value over volume," Kondej said. "For older consumers, items are intended to last and not change from season to season. As a result, an ageing consumer base is likely to adversely impact apparel volumes." However, she added, this attitude presents an opportunity to clothing companies to create higher-quality garments that still cater, to an extent, to trends--and charge a high premium for it.

So it follow that the one place that probably won't start catering to the senior set is the fast fashion industry. "No-one is expecting the likes of H&M or Gap to suddenly launch an over 60s line," Kondej said.

However, she was quick to add, "Given the long-term changes to demographics and the eventual influence these will have on the apparel market, it would be short-sighted of major apparel retailers not to at least consider branching out and enhancing their offerings for the older consumer as a possibility for future development."

I, for one, think these older ladies are awesome--and I'm excited we're getting to see more of them these days. To aging!