The Fashion World's Coming-of-Age
Gucci Tailoring Campaign 2020
From Balenciaga to Gucci to Off-White, big brands are calling on models who are a bit older than those to which we've become accustomed. Is this a passing trend, or can we anticipate a real reckoning with ageism in the industry?
Amalia Vairelli, Axelle Doué, Carolyn Murphy, Nicolas Duée, Suzi de Givenchy — the names might not mean much to us, yet. Nevertheless, over the last few seasons brands like Off White, Balmain and Vivienne Westwood have featured more mature faces both on the catwalks and in digital campaigns. The fashion industry of today has been advancing wholeheartedly towards greater inclusivity and diversity, further animated by an interest in paying tribute to the stars of yesteryear. It's an evolution that, little by little, has also begun to overturn ageism in Western society.
Under Phoebe Philo's direction, Céline featured literary star Joan Didion — 80 at the time — in a 2015 campaign that went viral. The decision was an unorthodox one in a fashion world in which white hair and even the finest lines largely remained taboo, and it was met with overwhelming public enthusiasm. Following Philo's lead, that same year Saint Laurent would enlist Joni Mitchell, aged 72. Having begun to open the field to seniority at the end of the 2000s, Ari Seth Cohen's blog "Advanced Style" compiled brilliant street-style looks sported by New York's trendiest elders. The progress has only picked up pace since then. "Starting in the 80s, creators like Jean-Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rea Kawakubo began recruiting older models, but it remained an uncommon practice," explains historian Xavier Chaumette. "Today, however, we live in a society that values tolerance. Seniors are a part of a global tendency towards greater inclusivity, along with ethnic minorities and the differently- or dis-abled." The proof is in the photo campaigns: Tippi Hedren, 91, and Iggy Pop, 73, for Gucci in 2018 as well as last September; Keanu Reeves, 56, for Saint Laurent in 2019; and Charlotte Rampling, 75, for Givenchy last year.
Bridging the generations
Still, would it be too hasty to say that the fashion industry's youth fetish is a thing of the past? In spite of the numerous senior cameos in heavy-hitting shows and campaigns, it's also worth noting that most of these faces are those of cultural icons of the last few decades. "In general, the older individuals that fashion is promoting are well-known celebrities, and their personality and celebrity take priority over their age," says Serge Carreira, Head of the Emerging Brands Initiative at France's Fédération de la Couture et de la Mode. If senior visibility is thus improving, as The Fashion Spot's reports on diversity would suggest, the vast majority of working models remain between 16 and 26. "For society, the idea of the model remains linked to a certain image of the body," explains Xavier Chaumette, for whom the notion of youth remains inextricable with that of beauty, even if the two are of course not mutually exclusive.
The dichotomy between the reality of the buyer and that of the model is changing, slowly but surely. This is due in large part to brand initiatives that, paradoxically, are often aimed at young creators, or those appreciated by younger generations. "Gen Z has a very open-minded approach — they tend to be very attached to notions of respect and diversity, in terms of skin color, weight, and also age, and fashion movements are often initiated by younger generations. They're the ones who keep things fresh. And this rising generation is less interested in aesthetic archetypes than personalities, irrespective of age," explains Carreira. At Balenciaga, for example, Demna Gvasalia doesn't hesitate to cast his models directly off the street, ensuring that the face of the brand is a relatable one, including wrinkles and grey hairs. The result? Other labels have followed the trend, since "brands like Balenciaga, Gucci, and Off-White have a strong influence on the industry. They're able to take what was formerly marginal and place it front and center." But young creators aren't the only ones with a renewed appreciation for maturity. Vivienne Westwood and Silvia Venturini Fendi, aged 79 and 60, respectively, have also called upon models closer to their own age.
The coming paradigm shift
Fashion houses aren't alone in this paradigmatic shift: modeling agencies like the UK's Grey and France's Silver have followed suit. Founded in 2012, the latter doubled down on the choice, exclusively representing models aged 40 and up. Among them we find Amalia Vairelli, Yves Saint Laurent's former muse, who's also appeared in campaigns for Mugler, Marine Serre, Ami, Off-White, and Kenneth Ize. Then there's Sylviane Degunst, 62, who in 2020 published Moi, Vieille et Jolie ("Old and Pretty"), a work in which this French-teacher-turned-model — at 55 no less — tackles the subject of aging and its social stigma. "This is a moment in which perspectives are widening and we're moving towards the end of this kind of conformity. The global aspiration to well-being and fulfillment and meaning leads people to a deeper acceptance of themselves, of their age, and their aging," states Serge Carreira. "Seniors can absolutely be just as cool as young people."No need to be a granfluencers" either, or a grandparent followed by thousands on Instagram, to the tune of (Iran Khanoom, Baddie Winkle), or "geriatric starlet" Iris Apfel— at 99, still flaunting a spring in her step.
If there's one hurdle left to clear, it might be our language. In the world of fashion and cosmetics, the word "old" remains tarnished by taboo. Elder models are often dubbed "silver models," "mature models," and "senior models," and "anti-aging" products remain legion on the market. Whatever the case may be, the industry seems to be coming to terms with its excessive ageism — the height of which was perhaps the 2000s, where we saw models like Lindsey Wixson, Karlie Kloss, and Sofia Mechetner opening shows at 14 or 15 years of age. With luxury clients wishing to identify with the brands they buy from, there's never been a better moment for the industry's coming of age.