Let’s face it: Singapore is an ageing population. Yet, despite representing a sizable group, elderly folks are commonly overlooked, says Cheah Sziyang. The recent visual communications graduate is not talking about social benefits or community care though. “In a few years’ time, you won’t see some of these characters on the street anymore, and a lot of them preserve the styles they enjoyed in their youth,” says the earnest 20-year-old. “I’d like to document them all down.”
Armed with little else but his smartphone or a basic DSLR, he’s been capturing often guerrilla-style so-called fashion-forward seniors – or in his own words, folks who “qualify for the (government’s) Pioneer Generation package” – on his two-year-old Instagram account @elderswithstyle. Clock the auntie catching some shut-eye on the MRT dressed in a fluorescent green tutu dress that would fit right into a Gucci runway collection. Or the uncle having a mid-day fag in a Prada-esque get-up of a red printed shirt layered artfully over a red tee and cargos, complete with a thick black leather belt and karabiner clipped onto his belt loop.
What was meant to be a personal mood board originally named @uncleswithstyle has since become something of a guilty pleasure and inspiration for a small but growing community of followers (2,850 at press time). The name change came about earlier this year after he started receiving more submissions featuring hip elderly women from contributors.
“Social media is so over-saturated with trends and hype kids, and I’m really not a big fan of that,” says Cheah, whose own personal style is largely simple and laid-back, accented by the odd ’90s-inspired accessory popular among his peers (his wallet’s Velcro).
“The thing about old people is that they don’t follow trends. Vintage style is back, but they’ve been dressing this way all along and exude this natural confidence, which I really admire,” he adds.
The likes of New Yorker Ari Seth Cohen’s celebrated blog Advanced Style have been chronicling fashion stars of the silver generation since as early as 2008, but Cheah’s approach is duly, distinctly Gen Z. “I wasn’t aware of sites like Advanced Style before, and find their photos very staged, with a focus on the upper class – gallery owners, designers and the like,” he says. “What I’m capturing here is more of the everyman or woman on the street.”
Prowling places like Chinatown (a hotspot, he says), he does ask his subjects for permission to photograph them whenever he can – interactions that have led to unintentional friendships (“they would continue talking to me and tell me about their lives, and it can be quite fascinating”). Otherwise, though, he’s ready to shoot on the fly and enjoys the element of spontaneity (which is why he requested to go incognito for this feature). “You have to keep your eyes peeled because you never know when you’ll see someone dressed interestingly on, say, the bus or train.”
And while his account has been labelled a meme page, he’ll have you know that he genuinely finds his subjects cool and that @elderswithstyle is in no way meant to be satirical. Nope, he doesn’t intentionally seek out older folks who dress “Balenciaga” – dad tee, dad pants, dad sneakers. “I think it’s more of Balenciaga referencing their aesthetic,” he says.
“@elderswithstyle is an appreciation of street culture that is unique to elders… (My subjects) don’t care about what people think about their style. They aren’t trying to be ‘ironic’.” How’s that for living wild and free?