Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a 69-year-old actress to sign a beauty contract – as Helen Mirren did in 2014 – or a nonagenarian to grace the cover of a glossy magazine (hello, Iris Apfel). But the fashion industry seems to have finally realised that great style doesn’t end once its wearer turns 40.
The success of Instagram accounts such as @advancedstyle, which documents the outfits of seniors, has undoubtedly played a role in the embrace of the more mature. But high fashion aside, style can be found in the everyday wear of people who may not spend much time planning their attire, but still manage to look fabulous.
Some of them can be found on Chinatown Pretty, a blog founded in 2015 by photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu, both of the San Francisco Bay Area of California, in the United States.
A year earlier, the two friends had wanted to find out where elderly people in Chinatown found their clothes. They started shooting, and while their ultimate goal is to publish a book, for now they simply aim to “celebrate the street style of seniors living (and grocery shopping) in Chinatown”, as they explain on their Instagram account, which has more than 11,000 followers.
“We usually wander around Chinatown, stop by parks and busy shopping streets – the usual seniors hangouts – and introduce ourselves to people who catch our eye,” Luu tells Post Magazine. “It’s hard to pinpoint what we’re drawn to, but we look for outfits that spark joy.
“There’s a certain style we see in Chinatown – often it involves unexpected outfits that play with bold colours, patterns, handmade clothing and accessories, and ‘vintage’, which, of course, are just pieces they have owned for decades.
“We’re often met with scepticism and it can be a challenge to persuade subjects to let us photograph them. There are many cultural, language and generational barriers – we work with Cantonese or Toisanese-speaking translators. But we think that’s all the more reason to be persistent and share their stories.”
The mismatched prints, unusual colour combinations, comfy pyjama sets, excessive layering and quirky accessories of their subjects are a far cry from the polished and often staged shots commonly associated with street-style photography, but that’s what makes Chinatown Pretty special.
“A lot of the trends we see are rooted in Chinatown’s history and culture,” Luu explains. “We’ve learned from talking to subjects that their garments are often handmade or were brought over to the US when they immigrated, and they’ve retained those pieces through the decades. There is an appreciation of colour, pattern and dressing pragmatically. Elastic-waist trousers, patterns – sometimes more than three in one outfit – and socks with sandals are common themes.”
There’s a personal aspect to the Chinatown Pretty project, as both Lo and Luu are second-generation Asian-American: Luu is Vietnamese-American (her parents and grandparents came from Ho Chi Minh City) while Lo is Chinese-American (her father is from Hong Kong and her mother was born in Boston’s Chinatown).
“My po po on my mother’s side was a seamstress, like many of the grandmas we meet in San Francisco’s Chinatown,” Lo says. “We’ve learned seamstressing was one of the few professions new immigrants could hold without knowledge of English. She made all of her own clothes – lots of patterned polyester – and I remember receiving hand-knitted sweaters and vests as gifts when I was small.
“This has added to my appreciation of the handmade pieces we notice. They’re unique and hold a history.”
While San Francisco is the duo’s stomping ground, they travel across the US in search of other lively pockets of tradition.
“[San Francisco] is the oldest and largest Chinatown west of the Mississippi,” Luu says. “The residents here exemplify Chinatown Pretty fashion – they wear layers of hand-knitted sweaters and puffy coats, even in the summer, as well as bold floral patterns and baseball caps – sometimes all in one outfit.
“They combine urban utilitarianism with unexpected sartorial selections that make our heart go aflutter.
“LA residents seem more relaxed and a little easier to chat up – must be that SoCal weather. San Francisco and New York residents tend to be more on the go, with their city blinders up.”
While Lo and Luu have yet to immortalise the melting pot of Asian cultures that is Hong Kong, the city is on their radar. “We’ve both travelled to Hong Kong, but only prior to starting Chinatown Pretty,” Luu says. “We hope to make it to the motherland sometime in the future.”