Sage-ism; when age really does matter

The world of fashion is driven by the desire to connect with the deepest parts of our changing psyche and with the many emerging zeitgeists that populate the furthest corners of our world. So it’s always interesting when we detect a shift in the discourse of fashion that seems to be reflected in our broader consumer culture; that’s when we at Stancombe think - “this is it; we’re having a cultural moment!” So what is it that has got our cultural forecasting pulse racing right now?


Last year it was almost impossible to open the pages (digital or otherwise) of any fashion publication and not notice something interesting happening on the advertising front. Rather than impossible, idealised youth, many leading fashion brands presented us with something else entirely; the very real possibility of old age. Starting at ‘high’ end it was impossible for us to ignore 71 year old Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent, or 80 year old Joan Didion for Celine. Soon after, Helen Mirren emerged as a face of cosmetics giant L’Oreal and Australian fashion brand Saba built campaigns around septuagenarians Robyn Nevin and Dion Horstmans.


Now Hollywood is also getting in on the act, which means that somebody somewhere thinks there’s money to be made from watching Anne Hathaway’s cool young boss learning to understand the value of Robert de Niro’s 70-year-old ‘intern’ in The Intern. And Bunnings, the only place we shop for our vegie seedlings, community gardens, outdoor furniture and balcony plots, has always had a thing for employing overtly older staff. Who doesn’t believe 68 year old ‘Barry’ when he tells you that, “this native grass will survive the bloody apocalypse mate”, or, “you’ll need 120 grit sandpaper for that job”. While Sage Fitness trades on ‘experience and knowledge’ and ‘the experts you have asked for’ in its promotion of personal training courses.

What’s this cultural moment all about?

It’s not a moment of cultural nostalgia. These people are represented in the here and now rather than referenced as something from the past; they are clearly speaking to us in the present.

There’s also a transparency and acknowledgement of who they are, of how they look, what they’ve done and where they’ve been, that belies the idea that this moment is a bit of navel gazing on the part of ‘baby boomers’ (who’s aspirations and self-image don’t tend to align particularly well with traditional ideas of ‘old people’), nor can it be read as an attempt by these brands to appeal to this substantial, ageing cohort. These brands are both high-end and aligned with a much younger aspirational target or are resolutely mass-market.

Here’s what we think is going on …

Whereas once the media (and the world) was filled with ‘baby boomers’ looking at millennials with puzzlement and sometimes incredulity, it looks like our culture has shifted and is having a moment when the gaze has been reversed. Millennials are looking back at older generations for wisdom; they are looking for experience; and they are looking for the kind of authenticity that only comes with both. Age really does matter when it’s allied with the kind of experience and perspective that can’t be downloaded from the internet, or gleaned instantly from the pages of a magazine ad.

Rather than the ‘ageism’ that felt like a dominant cultural theme immediately post-GFC, post-post-GFC there’s a different kind of ‘ism’ emerging; Sage-ism. The deference to the expert, the scholar, the advisor, the thinker, the professional, the wise, the teacher and the mentor - allied with a strong desire to use intelligence and experience to understand the world. The archetype of the Sage is having another moment in the sun – often in feminine form.

Getting excited too, it seems, is uber-Millenial Lena Dunham who in her newly launched e-newsletter Lenny gives inaugural interview space to an extended conversation with the mature Hillary Clinton who is demonstrating that older women have something valuable to offer society and may take Sage-ism all the way to the White House.