The Daily Telegraph
‘You can really rock it as an older woman’
Fifty-year-old Sandy Bleakley, a massage therapist from Cornwall, is starring in a new fashion campaign for the label Marfa Stance – and she’s part of a growing trend for older models, as Carolyn Asome discovers
Some would argue it was inevitable that Sandy Bleakley, who was born in South Africa, would settle near Penzance. Her maiden name, after all, is Cornwall. She grew up with an affinity for nature and a love of big skies and the healing power of the ocean, something which led to a life of surfing and establishing a holistic massage practice in the village of Sennen. It is there that she lives with her husband Sam Bleakley, a longboard champion, writer and film-maker, and their children.
What no one predicted, however, was that this mother of four would be photographed in bikini shorts, standing on a very windy Cornish clifftop this July, fronting a highfashion campaign at the age of 50: strands of grey very much in evidence and not the sylph-like frame from bygone salad days but looking every inch the confident glamazon, with an exciting modelling chapter ahead of her.
“I think I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t nerve-racking. All of a sudden, you take on quite a different perspective of your body. There are those little voices and there’s the confidence thing where you are asking yourself, can I? Can I do this? But everyone put me at such ease.”
Bleakley had dabbled in modelling during her late teens and learnt the basics but gruelling casting sessions when she later travelled around Australia and a commercial job where she was required to dive into a sofa was, she recalls, rather souldestroying. Her experience of fashion had until then, in the 1980s, been largely confined to a love of neon surfwear, shoulder pad cardigans and plastic jelly shoes.
Fast forward to 2021 and through her friendship with photographer Ben Weller and stylist Polly Wilkinson, who are part of Sennen’s growing creative community, she was introduced to Georgia Dant, founder of the fashion label Marfa Stance. “On meeting Sandy, I thought, why on earth would we use a traditional model?” says Dant. “She has such an interesting story to tell, looked incredible and stood for something very meaningful.”
Dant, who was a designer at Burberry and Rag & Bone before launching Marfa Stance, feels more empathy with models of the same age and older.
“I love their sense of accomplishment, wisdom and style,” she says. “They radiate beauty and confidence and are not led by a trend or insecurity. The brand I created was inspired by real women and the very individual ways they choose to wear clothes. I want to enjoy more dialogue around that.”
For Bleakley, the interest has been, if a surprise, very welcome. She’s thrilled to discover that fashion today can be functional, sustainable and can complement her lifestyle. “I’m all for inclusivity and if I can help to reframe the question of older women modelling, or be a positive role model, then that’s fantastic.”
Fashion and older models in 2021? If not a seismic change, then things are beginning to gather momentum. This season Amanda Holden, 50, and Davina Mccall, 53, front their own collections for JD Williams. Women over 50 contributed more than a third of the total spend on fashion in the UK
‘I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t nerve-racking. There are those little voices asking, can I?’
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‘Women are sending powerful messages: this is what we look like and want to wear’
in 2019 – £12.2billion out of a total of £34.6billion, according to research by the data agency Kantar. That’s a lot of women.
Megan Mccluskie, The Daily Telegraph’s bookings editor and casting agent, says brands are increasingly looking to cast diversity across the board. “This definitely reflects the advent of social media as consumers have more of a voice. Women are sending out powerful messages: this is what we look like and this is what we want to wear. Increased democracy and the spending power of an older demographic has had a disruptive influence on fashion.”
Karen Diamond who heads the Classic division at Models 1, agrees that things have shifted in the past few years. “Black Lives Matter has helped the dialogue of inclusivity and was very much a turning point. What is encouraging is that we’re seeing more demand for realistic models. The clients don’t mind a line or grey hair. They are using ageless campaigns and recognise that they are talking to a much broader demographic. They understand, too, that younger women are not going to be put off by an older woman with a few wrinkles if she looks incredible in the clothes.”
Thanks to social media, consumers can look up a particular model, check out their feed… it’s no longer onedimensional, there is a whole story.
“Look at the women who are getting the really great jobs,” Diamond continues, “Cecilia Chancellor, Mouchette Bell, Anna K; Daphne Selfe is in demand and she’s 93.” Diamond, who also represents curve models, has observed that while previously it was very much a no-man’s-land for a size 12, demand has taken off.
“Before, size 12 models weren’t the right size for regular modelling but neither were they large enough for plus size,” she says.
“You know you can really rock it as an older woman,” says Bleakley, eyes shining. “Perhaps it’s my time, I have more wisdom and confidence now.”
The Marfa Stance pop-up store is open from tomorrow till Saturday at the Black & White Gallery, 59 Greek Street, W1