What does it mean to be a woman in her eighth decade in the ’20s? Is 80 the new 50? Is there a right time to hand over the reins, or is enough truly never enough? This past fashion week left me dumbstruck while witnessing the stamina, perseverance, and downright chutzpah of two octogenarian women still doing their thing in the fashion industry, often running rings around those half their age.
Much has been written, said, and presented in a documentary about 82-year-old photographer Rose Hartman. Adjectives like “incomparable,” irreverent, irascible, fearless, relentless, even downright rude — with Rose you get the thorns. Words Hartman uses to describe her work: “Intimate, individualistic, beautiful.” The diminutive blonde eschews the “gotcha” aspect of the “ugly” paparazzi shot, choosing instead to elevate her subject interestingly or uniquely.
As a bored high school English teacher, Hartman decided to reinvent herself at the age of 40. Realizing that she enjoyed behind the scenes glimpses she sought and gained access to the world of fashion, taking her camera backstage at the shows and in the clubs. At Studio54, she would stash her huge camera in the gigantic speakers while she danced – including on that fateful night in May 1977 — Bianca Jagger’s 30th birthday when Mrs. Mick rode through the club on the white horse. That iconic image (one of only two such photos) placed Hartman forever at the forefront of this male-dominated genre.
In the past 40 years, she has captured famed nightlife denizens from the worlds of art, music, films, popular culture and fashion including Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, David Bowie and Iman, Cher, Diana Ross, Grace Jones, Bianca, and Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Diana Vreeland, Anna Wintour, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Halston, Bob Mackie, Betsey Johnson, Diane von Furstenberg, Ralph Lauren, Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, among others.
This past Thursday night, Rose was a featured photographer along with Bill Bernstein, Ron Galella, Lynn Goldsmith, Chris von Wangenheim, and Allan Tannenbaum (who was also in attendance) at the Morrison Hotel Gallery exhibition “Disco at 50” (through March 15). Attendees were asked to “dress to kill” ’70s style to celebrate “the joie de vivre that made the disco era an extraordinarily magical moment in history.”
DJ Samantha Michelle spun disco tunes while a brave few dressed to kill (or at least to maim) danced enthusiastically in the crowded, sweltering space. Wearing a two-tone sequin blazer on loan from I Need More — Jimmy Webb’s store in NYC, while clutching a long-stemmed red rose she held court, welcoming those who came to pay tribute and take photos (not selfies which she doesn’t do) with her. Her work is also at the upcoming Brooklyn Museum exhibition “Studio 54: Night Magic” (March 13-July 5).
Carmen Dell’ Orefice, the world’s oldest (89) still working model/actress, is another one of Rose Hartman’s subjects. I was fortunate to see the majestic Carmen in action Wednesday night as she walked the runway for Chinese designer Sheguang Hu at Pier 59. The silver-haired stunner was discovered on a 57th Street cross-town bus at the age of 13 and appeared in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and on the cover of Vogue at 16.
She has been photographed by many major fashion photographers, including Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Horst P. Horst, Cecil Beaton, Gleb Durujinsky, Francesco Scavullo, Norman Parkinson (perhaps her favorite). She was introduced by Beaton to Salvador Dali, becoming one of his muses, and appeared in too many major national and international advertising campaigns to even list.
Sounds like a fairy tale, right? Not exactly — you’d be making a mistake in thinking that her life was a piece of cake. Growing up in a dysfunctional family too poor for a phone, she was summoned to jobs by an agency runner who’d appear at her door bearing a slip of paper with an address for her next assignment. Often she would roller skate to the shoot location to save bus fare. Carmen was so malnourished that clothing for shoots had to be stuffed and pinned on her – she needed doctor prescribed shots to get through puberty. Fortunately, she inherited her Hungarian mother’s seamstress talents, sewing a replica “Chanel” suit after modeling one that she coveted. She credits her Italian father for her “bones.”
It’s safe to say that Carmen was unlucky at love. She retired from modeling at some point during each of her three marriages –eventually returning when she needed funds. Her first husband, Bill Miles (with whom she has a daughter) reportedly picked up her modeling checks, allowing her to have only a $50 allowance while he squandered the rest.
In 1993 she met and dated Norman F. Levy for several years, inadvertently becoming a victim in the Bernie Madoff scam — Levy was Madoff’s best friend. Not-so-fun fact: she was engaged to David Susskind in the late 1980s when he died before they could marry.
Despite knee and hip replacements, Carmen travels to China frequently, walking in the Guo Pei show in 2017. In keeping with the idea that China is a country that respects their elders, Sheguang likes to show his unique dramatic couture clothing (signature elongated shoulders seem to be his calling card) on older women due to their purchasing power. He’s clearly developed a warm relationship with Carmen, who is a well-known icon there.
The crowd of fashion show attendees, press and shutterbugs went crazy when she opened the show (in a long black and red dress), arm-in-arm with designer Hu. They closed the show as well, she in a long, floral, slit-up-to-there cheongsam-style dress and high heeled crystal-embellished pumps. Next, Carmen was presented with a bouquet of red roses and a crystal award. A Miss America-style crown would not have been incongruous.
Unlike American fashion shows in which everyone flees the room as if a fire has broken out immediately after the designer takes his bow, Carmen, the models and the designer all stayed put post-show, posing for photos with the two Bestune Chinese sponsor cars. At one point, Carmen posing on the hood of a car almost slid off, but a large burly man quickly caught her.
The love between the longtime model and the young, talented designer was evident. He had tears in his eyes as she kissed and held his face, embracing him repeatedly. I was worried about attending a show with a Chinese connection due to possible exposure to Coronavirus, while a woman several decades my senior, fearlessly carried on with abandon. To have missed the expressions of pure and utter joy on each of their faces is unthinkable.