While fashion brands seem obsessed with youth, the smartest among them are tapped into a surer market. By Alyx Gorman.

The fashion industry embraces "grey chic"

Karen Walker’s latest eyewear campaign featured models aged between 64 and 92.
Credit: Ari Seth Cohen

Grey hair goes with everything. In the late 18th century, the women of the French court knew this well. They’d use a mixture of milled starch and fragrant oils to achieve a look that, at a time when the average life expectancy was only 40, was unlikely to come naturally. 

Two centuries later, life expectancy has doubled, and after decades of positioning teenagers as the epitome of chic, the fashion industry is finally reigniting its passion for going grey. This time, the effect is real. 

In 2012 Lanvin recruited 82-year-old dancer Jacqueline Murdock for its autumn campaign. Last year Karen Walker hired fashion and street-style blogger Ari Seth Cohen of Advanced Style to shoot her eyewear campaign. He cast four of his favourite muses, aged between 64 and 92. This year, the beauty industry caught up, as Marc Jacobs signed Jessica Lange, now 65, to be the first face of his cosmetics label and Nars hired 68-year-old Charlotte Rampling to star in its 20th-anniversary campaign in September.

Prada, considered the coolest luxury label in the world, may not feature mature women in its advertising campaigns, but a quick perusal of the racks inside one of the stores reveals a customer well into her middle years. Eccentricity is one of the brand’s major calling cards, but in reality Miuccia Prada creates dresses for creative careerists in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Dries Van Noten, who is currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris also makes clothes for wildly successful artists, curators or women who wish to present themselves that way. His work features lots of dazzlingly printed silk – typically with a clever historical or artistic citation behind it – cut into languid, flowing pieces that are simultaneously comfortable and feminine. It’s no wonder he’s a favourite of 92-year-old fashion doyenne Iris Apfel. 

While it may do wonders for one’s credibility overseas, locally “grandma chic” is a label with which very few designers are comfortable. The typical spirit of Australian fashion is very much youth-obsessed and down to party. This is a shame, since very few women in their teens and 20s look good in extremely short, extremely tight spring racing dresses, spaghetti-strapped singlet tops or bum-scraping short shorts. And yet these items are as predictable as thin models on the runway at Australian Fashion Week. 

Even brands that do cater to more mature tastes tend to stow their grown-up offerings away where only their customers can see them, and instead present the world with something younger, just as Carla Zampatti did at her Spring/Summer 2014 show. She swapped her staple blazers and crepe trousers for sheer lace pants and jumpsuits slit straight down the sternum. 

But alongside the local obsession with youth is something more elegant, more refined, and with an altogether longer hem length and history. Some of Australia’s most successful and longest-running labels make clothes that are very friendly for women of all ages, not just tan-limbed infants. With small but thriving bricks-and-mortar businesses, and no need to throw annual parades, they are the quiet achievers of Australian fashion.

“I think older style is refreshingly unique and exciting,” says Leona Edmiston, who, having spent more than 30 years running fashion labels, would know better than most. “There are many lessons to be learnt in terms of dressing for one’s self and developing a distinctive sense of style.” Edmiston, who also makes plus-size garments, revels in the diversity of her client base. “My aim with any of our customers is to highlight the good and hide the bad.”

This is a philosophy shared by Megan Park, a Melbourne-based designer with two retail stores, and more than 100 stockists locally and abroad. “I don’t design for a runway model. I’m very conscious of trying to make clothes that look flattering and feel comfortable.” The results of this effort are loose-fitted, playful pieces one could imagine being worn by three generations of bohemian women as they wander through the grounds of a posh south-east Asian resort. 

In Australia, where we have to wrestle with a frequently sticky climate, using generous amounts of light, natural fibres is never a bad idea, and making the clothes well is an even better one. “I think that a more mature customer can appreciate the detail in our clothes. Some of our pieces may have taken a week to embroider, or it might have been hand sewn by a tailor, and all French seamed. It’s not disposable clothing.” 

Brisbane-based designers Pamela Easton and Lydia Pearson this year celebrate the 25th year of their label Easton Pearson. Their designs remain as vibrant as they were in 1989 – mind-bending geometric patterns jostle for attention with elaborate illustrations of Sikh royal life in their Autumn/Winter collection “Pleasure Garden”. While the prints might verge on outlandish, the garments are shrewd. There are plenty of forgiving dresses, cut on the bias to a prim just-below-the-knee, librarian length. These are clothes that look like a punkish rebellion against the pressure to show flesh on a 25-year-old, but are even more at home on a woman twice that age, who can actually afford to buy them. 

All Australian designers creating clothes for an older market share one thing in common: they’re incredibly expressive in their use of colour. Perhaps the best personal embodiment of this vivacity is Jenny Kee. The 2013 Australian Fashion Laureate has lately been making scarves that, in her words, “the young and old can wear any way they wish”. A connection to art plays a central role in Kee’s appreciation of fashion. She name-checks the eccentric but celebrated label Romance Was Born, known for collaborations with fine artists, as her favourite in Australia at present. 

Though Romance Was Born courts a youth market, with its hipster-stuffed Fashion Week parties, a look through their retail offering tells a slightly different story. There are party dresses and crazy shorts, but Romance Was Born also makes brightly coloured elegantly cut silk T-shirts and dresses. They make trousers for sitting down in. They make a lot of clothes that wouldn’t look out of place on the women of Advanced Style. 

The industry perception that “youth is best” is unlikely to disappear over the next few seasons, but in the meantime, some designers have cottoned onto something smarter. They make clothing for women who know how to make themselves look interesting, rather than for women who look good in everything. They’re going after the grown-ups. The kind of women who collect and curate, rather than simply “shop”; the kind of women who can comfortably afford designer clothes. 

As far as demographic trends go, the older market is shortly set to explode. For the designers who already know how to cater to them, that is very good news, because older customers aren’t just a “next big thing” – they’re also the thing that can keep a brand in business. They’re loyal and they still love clothing. When asked to describe her more mature customer, Leona Edmiston explains it best: “She is the mother of one of our other VIP customers and owns over 50 frocks, her style is very polished, chic but with a sense of fun.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 7, 2014 as "Grey chic". Subscribe here.

Alyx Gorman
is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.