Fashion Faux Pas?

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ALEXANDRA DAVEY investigates fashion for the older generation

The Topshop flagship store on Oxford Street in London is a kind of hell: gargantuan, sprawling and teaming with Lilliputian people still young enough to seriously ponder the purchase of harem pants, pastel shades or something with fringing. Every time I set foot in that shop, I get a creeping feeling that I’ve graduated in absentia from trendiness and indeed from Topshop against my will. Ageing, with its stealing steps, has stolen any enjoyment that shopping in the high street behemoth once held. After all, a twenty-two-year-old doth not a job get clad in the calypso-prints-meets-sportswear-sweats collections Topshop are pushing at the moment. In short, it makes me feel old.

Fashion is, of course – by definition – young.  Fashion is supposed to be fresh and new, every season. It’s meant to be fleeting, synonymous with reinvention, reincarnation and rebirth. The world’s top models are scouted as though fresh from the womb, some barely into their teens before they’re racking up show-heavy fashion week rosters. But what happens to our relationship with fashion as we get older? What does a stylish woman wear when she’s past the Topshop phase in life? And – gulp – does fashion cater for women once they’re past what is conceived to be their clotheshorse prime? The simple answer is probably not.

Olivia May, a soon-to-be fashion design graduate of Middlesex University, has approached her final year project with a collection that aims to address that cavernous gap in the market. “I wrote my dissertation on ageism within the fashion industry, so my collection just stemmed from there,’ explains the 22 year old, who has just found out that she will be showing her designs at Graduate Fashion Week in June.

“In my research, I looked at a fashion blog called Advanced Style, which contains photographs and interviews with fashionable older ladies. I found them a true inspiration and wanted to make a collection for women like them. Older women have the confidence and grace that younger generations perhaps lack. They know their bodies and what suits them, and they dress so well.”

May names her style icon as 90-year-old Iris Apfel, an American fashion darling and former interior designer. “She piles on tens of necklaces at a time, along with thirty bangles – and she’s not afraid of colour. Iris is definitely someone I would love to wear my designs,’ she explains.

The models in May’s show, Daphne Selphe (83), Jan de Villeneuve (68) and Pam Lucas (62), looked as though they were styled with Apfel in mind, clad super-stylishly in floor-length pink knit dresses, thick, graphic black-rimmed glasses with a sixties vibe, and a tasselled jacket that May cites as her favourite piece: “It took so much work, probably made up of about 150 tassels handmade by myself and good friends!” The collection is a long way from the M&S fleece, orthopaedic sandals and fusty colour palettes usually associated with the over-sixties. In other words, May’s models looked cool, a fusion of classic and contemporary.

It’s a look that’s been stealthily making its way into the mainstream, Topshop-type market over the past few years: for Autumn/Winter 2010, Louis Vuitton showed models as old as 46 (gasp) attired in full-skirted dresses with cinched in waists that were evocative of fifties fashion – “a bit old fashioned, I know,” designer Marc Jacobs commented at the time, a little apologetically. Christopher Kane showed shoes that looked suspiciously like the old aged pensioner’s poolside footwear of choice in his Spring/Summer 12 collection, and then there’s the Duchess of Cambridge, recycling her mother’s much-worn pieces for public outings (she donned Carole’s royal blue Reiss number to give her first speech) and bringing nude tights back into the realms of social acceptability (just). It’s easy to forget how fashion’s very essence owes everything to its fore-bearers, and yet it offers them so little in return.

It seems fitting then, that the next generation in fashion design are looking ahead to future – older – generations, considering that it’s those older generations that are constantly serving as inspiration for our everyday style. “I would love to go on and do an MA in printed textiles, and in the future it would be amazing to start my own label,” explains May. “I dream of owning my own boutique that would be a comfortable and enjoyable shopping experience for my older clients.”

As Iris Apfel famously quipped, “Getting older ain’t for sissies.” Many of us fourth years, with graduation nearly upon us, will bitterly attest to the truth in such a statement. It’s nice to know, then, that with style pioneers like May, at least our fashion future isn’t looking so out of focus after all.

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