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‘We’re Not Defined By Our Age’

© Alex Bramall

Finally, the fashion world is rejecting outdated notions of beauty

In a West London photo studio this summer, the hubbub of a shoot is in full swing: Missy Elliott is blaring, assistants are running around, clothes are being pinned. And in front of the photographer stand six models, dressed all in white, a phalanx of Greek goddesses transported straight to W10. They know their angles, they know their bodies. It’s a sweltering day, but each has the ice cool composure of the truly confident.

The models are six extraordinary women, remarkable in their own right and because they defy the notion that a model’s sell-by date is her early twenties. A mix of industry veterans and newcomers, they range in age from 26 to 63, and each proves that the once industry-standard mould of a model as a thin, white teenager who is seen and not heard is now woefully outdated.

‘People’s concepts of beauty are changing,’ says Mouchette Bell, 63, who started modelling in her twenties, when she worked with industry legends like Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani and Peter Lindberg, but then stepped behind the camera to become a stylist for British Vogue, Mademoiselle and Elle. Last year, however, she was wooed back in front of the camera, by the industry’s changing mood. ‘[Clients] know I have a few wrinkles and creases, which I’ve earned and they like it. Now I don’t have to be perfect.’

It’s certainly true that fashion has woken up to the power of using women of substance whose beauty doesn’t conform to some age barrier. You can see attitudes changing across the board – from high-end powerhouses to high-street stalwarts.

Last year, Lauren Hutton scooped a Calvin Klein underwear campaign at 73, and walked for Bottega Veneta’s 50th anniversary show. Brands such as Dries Van Noten, The Row and Roland Mouret have also used older models in recent campaigns and shows. Earlier this year, Lancôme signed Isabella Rossellini, 66, as a brand ambassador, 24 years after terminating her last contract (she claimed it was because she was too old – how times change). Meanwhile, for its new own- brand collection, John Lewis & Partners used 60-something model Jocelyne Beaudoin. ‘Age is not the defining character when selecting a woman for our campaigns,’ says the brand’s head of womenswear, Jo Bennett.

And for anyone still in doubt whether women of a certain age can have ‘it’, then consider one of the most spectacular fashion moments of recent years: the Versace S/S ’18 finale in which Donatella Versace was flanked by the original ‘supers’ – Cindy Crawford (52), Naomi Campbell (48), Claudia Schiffer (48), Carla Bruni (50), and Helena Christensen (49) – looking as invincibly gorgeous as ever. That was a year ago and the momentum has gained pace.

‘I think we get inspired by people who are like us,’ says Anna Klevhag, the 49-year- old Swedish blonde in our shoot, who made her name in the ’90s modelling for Helmut Lang and DKNY. ‘We have to be able to identify with the people we see.’ Grazia’s casting and talent director Holly Scott Lidgett, who cast this shoot and John Lewis’s campaign, agrees. ‘The demand for older models comes from a new approach to the way we represent women,’ she says. ‘We want to see individuals. Modern, fresh, relevant, current – exactly how it should be.’

Indeed, just look at the hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers influencers Lynn Slater (65) and Sophie Fontanel (56) have. We’re hungry to see what women with the confidence of age wear, do and think. It makes sense that brands are wising up, not least because it’s commercially savvy – why freeze out the demographic most likely to be able to a ord luxury fashion?

But it doesn’t just resonate with an older audience. As Holly says, ‘We all want to look at these women’. Indeed, just as you don’t have to be a teenager to want to buy something 17-year-old Kaia Gerber wears on the catwalk, you don’t have to be in your fifties to want to emulate the confident sexiness of silver-haired Nottingham native Nicky Griffn, the 58-year old turning up the attitude in a vinyl Marina Rinaldi trench.

Nicky’s composure in front of the camera is all the more remarkable as she’s only been doing this for five years. A mum of twin daughters (now 24), her unlikely move into modelling came via a queue at the bank when she was approached to be in a hair ad. She dismissed the idea at first (‘I thought, why do they want me? My hair’s grey!’) but was encouraged to follow it up by her daughters. Buoyed by their enthusiasm, Nicky ‘went off on a jolly’.

That was five years ago, and that jolly has flourished into a thriving second-act career. In 2016, Nicky made headlines when she became the oldest woman ever to appear in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, wearing a gold bikini. Even without the images being captured for posterity, getting in a bikini makes most women nervous, but Nicky was determined not to be all ‘boo hoo I have stretch marks’ about it. ‘I thought, “You know what, here [is my body] in all its glory. No it’s not perfect, no I’m not 20, it is what is,”’ she says. ‘I’m entitled to put on a bikini and feel good.’ She didn’t always feel such confidence. ‘When I was younger, everything was a problem,’ she says, reflecting that she enjoys modelling much more now than her younger self would have.

With that liberation comes camaraderie, a sisterliness born out of self-assuredness. We see it in action all day, as the models support each other and take selfies together. ‘You’re a tough act to follow!’ says Mouchette as Nicky wraps up her portrait shot. Wearing all white, with layers of necklaces and her hair in plaits, Mouchette is the embodiment of bohemian cool. She has always loved fashion (she remembers poring over the details of her first Communion dress) and is thrilled to see attitudes changing. ‘Back in the day, if you were 20 you wore “young” clothes and if you were 50 you wore “old” clothes,’ she remembers.

The relentless, futile pursuit of perfection is a treadmill most women are sadly familiar with. Talking to these women, one is reminded that what is on the outside doesn’t necessarily match the inside – something Noémie Lenoir, 39, knows painfully intimately. The Parisian model has worked for mega-brands like Victoria’s Secret and Tiffany & Co, but is probably best known for her stint in M&S’s adverts. She appeared to have it all. Then, in 2010, she tried to kill herself. ‘Even in my bad times I learned things,’ she says now.

Today, fizzing with energy and disarmingly open, Noémie is so up that it’s almost impossible to reconcile that with the shattering lows she has experienced. Age has brought her gratitude. ‘I’m in my forties next year and I’m excited about it.’ Mother to a son, 13, and daughter, three, Noémie is understandably cautious about social media. But a positive she recognises is that it has opened the doors of the industry. ‘Why can’t [we see] a woman with shape wear clothes? Why can’t a black woman wear make-up?’ she says, eyebrows raised.

‘Noémie’s hilarious,’ says Jade Parfitt, who started modelling at the same time. Jade was one of the hottest names of the late ’90s, a favourite of the biggest designers in the business – think McQueen, Galliano, Gaultier.

Having turned 40 earlier this year, she’s at the Grazia shoot with youngest daughter Silver, 11 months. ‘It’s not the cut-off you imagine when you’re younger,’ she says of that milestone age. ‘You come into yourself more. That’s the secret, it gets better and better. You just feel more tired,’ she laughs.

Despite her success, Jade says self-doubt would plague her when she was younger. ‘I’ve learned I’m much more capable than I thought I was. A lot of young models are terribly insecure – you think you’re not pretty enough, you’re not tall enough, you’re too tall.’ She’s experienced ‘peaks and troughs’ in her own career but found that becoming a mum put everything into perspective. ‘What was important just isn’t any more,’ she says, adding that she makes a point of telling her own daughters ‘you’re so clever’ rather than ‘you’re so beautiful’.

Spotted at 16, Jade had already been modelling for a decade by the time she was 26, the age that another of today’s Grazia cover stars, Berlin-based Cris W ( Johanna Crisanto Warner), is now. Let’s be frank – 26 is categorically not old by any stretch – but until relatively recently, that was past the sell-by date for most models.

Initially scouted at 14, Cris was too shy to try modelling. Part of the new guard of curve models disrupting the industry (she’s a size 16), it wasn’t until she was 23 that she decided to give it ago. What started as a side-hustle is now her full-time gig and her confidence has grown with the job. ‘I’ve got more comfortable with myself,’ she says. ‘The older you get, the more you appreciate your body as something that keeps you alive.’

Modelling or not, your twenties can be tough. How is she coping? ‘For me, it’s just finding out who I am, trying not to be scared and overwhelmed. I’ve found that the less you resist – even the bad and overwhelming times – the quicker you move on.’

If she ever wants a little help, she might want to speak to Anna. The Swedish super made her name in the jet-set whirr of the ’90s, working with Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld and Juergen Teller. As the face of DKNY, she’d see her image plastered all over Times Square. Then, in the mid- noughties, Anna ‘opted out of everything’. Following the tragic death of her agent in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, she focused her energies on raising two daughters in the Devon countryside.

Recently, Anna returned to fashion, using her experiences to become a life coach for young models, helping them maintain a sense of equilibrium. She’s also been coaxed back in front of the camera, for (among others) Matchesfashion.com, MAC and H&M. She likens modelling 2.0 to slipping on an old pair of slippers – familiar, comfortable. ‘I still feel pressure to do a nice shot but I feel much more secure,’ she says. ‘I always loved the job.’

It’s galvanising watching these women in action; a reminder that we are hungry to see women with opinions, confidence and stories to tell – whatever their age. ‘I think we’re all sick and tired, bored of just seeing 18-year-olds wearing size zero,’ says Nicky. ‘We all want to be represented. A woman can be beautiful and stylish at 85. It’s not about age, it’s not about size, it’s about who you are.'