With her vinyl Kassl Editions trench coat, wide-leg khakis, Spring Court sneakers and Celine Tambour bag, Sophie Fontanel is style personified. No wonder, then, that the Paris-based journalist has recently added “Instagram star” to her CV at an age when many of her peers feel they are losing their mojo. “I am 58 and my career is blooming,” she says, of her 248,000-strong following.
Things took off when Fontanel began documenting her (radical, for a Parisienne) decision to let her hair go gray. “This white coming upon my head was something so completely new, I was so happy. It was a complete change, and at the same time it was becoming really me,” she says. Today, white-haired women stop her on the boulevards and send her photographs to thank her for inspiring them to ditch the dye. She encourages other women of her age to post their selfies. “I am not the most beautiful girl in town, but I have found my beauty,” she says. “I made an effort not to be like the others, but to pay attention to what I owned. To have the courage to appear.”
Introducing the “Silvfluencers”
Fontanel is leading the charge of a glamorous new crop of mature influencers (aged 40, 50, 60 and up) who are finally appearing — and looming large — in fashion’s consciousness. And if your feed is full of Identikit millennials teaming the same nondescript gray marl sweatpants with the same gray 990v5 New Balance trainers and the same (gifted) black designer bag (see @shitbloggerspost for more), it could be time to switch your follower allegiances.
The silvfluencers are all about refined eccentricity — think nonagenarian Iris Apfel, but dialed down a little. Despite having reached an age where they know what suits them, they’re not afraid to make a so-called wardrobe mistake. They mix vintage Yves Saint Laurent with & Other Stories, bright colors with optimistic prints, red lipstick with gray hair. They strike unstudied poses and post refreshingly unedited captions.
Sometimes they have a bit of a helping hand. Take Najate Leklye, a 68-year-old Moroccan retired teacher and community worker, who has become the breakout star of her 37-year-old daughter Meryem Slimani’s account, @meryemsfirst. Slimani styles her up in Weekday jeans and Casablanca hoodies, Ganni leopard-print dresses and Nike Cortez trainers to rapturous response from their 57,000-strong following. “My mama is somehow shy and humble but also unapologetically herself at all times,” Slimani says. “After she got sick and stopped working, I saw her getting in a bit of a funk, but I pushed her to get active and that has helped us both tremendously.” Then there’s Asami Naito, the 71-year-old vice-chair of Japanese classic-car restorer Naito Auto, who wears 8 Moncler Richard Quinn’s daisy-print coat with Khaite jeans and Prada boots. Her feed for the account @naito_saori, run by her daughter Saori, has more than 73,000 followers, none of whom can get enough of her “smile maker” style, as she puts it.
The fashion industry is catching on. Raey, Matchesfashion’s in-house line designed by Rachael Proud, has a loyal fan base of over-40s who regularly choose to stock up on the brand’s pared-back basics in luxe fabrics. Proud, 46, makes a point of featuring mature, unretouched models in campaigns and in Raey’s Instagram feed. “We don’t think of age, we just want to see women (and men) who have lived a life and are comfortable in their skin,” she says. One such customer is Grece Ghanem, a fabulous 56-year-old with a choppy gray bob, a penchant for old Céline and 592,000 Instagram followers, who wears Raey with offbeat insouciance. When she appeared in a recent editorial for Matchesfashion, it resulted in the Racil suit she was wearing selling out, and yielded one of the best-performing talent posts on the retailer’s Instagram feed earlier this year.
Make no mistake, this generation of baby boomers is a powerful demographic. Not only do they have more brand loyalty as well as the disposable income to actually purchase the designer bag — one in five over-65s in the UK is classified a millionaire, according to ONS data — but they have also wholeheartedly embraced online shopping and social media in the pandemic. Toward the end of 2020, Global Web Index reported a 66 percent increase in baby boomers discovering new brands and products via social media over the previous four years, and more than a quarter are spending even longer on social platforms now as a result of the pandemic, according to a 2020 Hootsuite report. Yet despite all this, they are still being overlooked: a report by J Walter Thompson Intelligence found that 67 percent of its baby boomer respondents felt advertisers only care about young people.
Marfa Stance, the convertible-coat brand, has enjoyed great success with older influencers. “I find younger customers buy something because it is cool or in fashion, whereas an older customer — who knows what she likes and dresses for herself — buys for a specific reason,” says its founder, Georgia Dant. “Older customers radiate confidence and ease, which has a positive domino effect.” When Deborah Brett, a fortysomething journalist with 41,000 Instagram followers, wore a Marfa Stance coat earlier this year, the brand promptly sold five in one day; meanwhile it sold out of its green convertible knit within a week of her posting about it. Model Jeny Howorth, 58, is also a fan, with a Marfa Stance mention in an Instagram Live converting to sales in New York and London. And one of the brand’s most liked and commented on posts of 2021 is of Louise, a 93-year-old customer on the US East Coast, wearing its pink quilted jacket.
Yvonne Telford, 48 (“but I stopped counting”), receives equally rapturous responses when she models her designs for Kemi Telford, her brand of joyful daywear based on the wax prints she grew up with in Nigeria. Its April collaboration with John Lewis was one of the fastest-selling new brands for the retailer. Sales are equally healthy via her own Web site — something she puts down to her personal service. “I speak to my customers all the time. I’ve spoken to at least eight today,” she tells me. “I’ve had women tell me about going through chemo, a divorce, things they can’t discuss with any other person. A call that is meant to take 10 minutes will sometimes take 20 or 30. I don’t mind. It’s not just about clothes, it’s about community.”
Community was a founding principle for social networks that has slowly dissipated as influencers have gained wider followings and increased commercial clout. But Instagram still has the ability to delight: you just have to know where to look. Next up? Seek out Hironobu, an 89-year-old Japanese man whose streetwear-inflected outfits are curated and photographed by his grandson Kota and posted on @hokanobunobu. The project started as Kota was trying to keep his grandfather’s spirits up after his grandmother died. It has struck a chord with Nick Wakeman, founder of the fashion brand Studio Nicholson, who has sent him clothes. “It’s not often we get to see an energetic 89-year-old Japanese man rocking strong looks, especially on a social media platform normally reserved for millennial mercenaries on the hunt to secure their next sponsorship deal,” she says.
As for Kota, he says: “My grandfather gets embarrassed when I read aloud to him some of the comments. Deep down, though, I think it really cheers him up.”
Ellie Pithers is a London-based contributing editor to British Vogue