Russian babushkas break stereotypes with fashion shoots

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In Russia, elderly women are usually expected to forget about fashion and watch their grandchildren. Not 71-year-old Olga Kondrasheva, who is fighting stereotypes by modelling for a glossy magazine.

“I’m over 70 now but my life is just beginning and it’s so interesting,” says Kondrasheva, slim and sporting wavy white hair, a few minutes before a studio photoshoot for the Russian edition of Cosmopolitan magazine in central Moscow.

With a lifelong zest for adventure, she used to take part in zoological expeditions to study wildlife across Russia and has worked as an extra in films.

She admits she “never trained as a model”, but says she has “always been fascinated by this line of work”.

“I’m discovering a totally new side to myself. When I’ve had my hair and make-up done and I’ve got a nice outfit on and there’s some lovely music playing, it’s wonderful,” she enthuses.

Kondrasheva found herself posing for the cameras thanks to a website called Oldushka (“Oldie”) launched by photographer Igor Gavar.

“I wanted to show that older people can work in the fashion industry and they can be beautiful — even with wrinkles and white hair,” he says.

The site serves as an informal modelling agency by showcasing studio shots of Gavar’s elderly subjects, who like catwalk queens a quarter of their age have been spotted in all kinds of places — on the street, in a supermarket, and even a dance floor.

Gavar has managed to organise numerous photoshoots for his dozen or so “muses”, including 80-year-old former air stewardess Irina Denisova and 64-year-old Lyudmila Brazhkina, a retired engineer.

Several striking silver-haired men are also on Oldushka’s books, though of those who have scored shoots in Russian fashion catalogues, magazines and advertisements so far, all but one have been women.

– ‘Like a little holiday’ –

The retirement age in Russia is 55 for women and 60 for men. Many continue working long afterwards out of economic necessity — and few look forward to retirement, knowing that years of money worries likely lie ahead.

The average pension in Russia is only around $200 (185 euros) per month, but Oldushka allows its models to “earn a little bit extra,” Gavar says.

He and the model split the fees for any shoots secured through the website, which have so far ranged from $40 to $300.

They say the work gives women a new lease of life and a confidence boost at a time when their main role in Russian society as “babushkas” or grandmas is to provide large amounts of free childcare.

“It brightens up my life. Doing this is always so joyful, so positive,” says Brazhkina.

“And I enjoy being viewed in a different way during the photoshoots — not the way I see myself in the mirror. It’s like a little holiday!” she says, smiling.

– ‘Enormous potential’ –

Old age has been enjoying something of a moment in global fashion as feminists challenge traditional beauty standards and as the West comes to grips with an ageing population.

Last year French label Celine chose 82-year-old author Joan Didion as its new face, while Dolce & Gabbana, American Apparel and Saint Laurent have all featured elderly models in recent campaigns.

Russia faces a similar demographic trend as developed Western countries, with nearly a quarter of the population currently over retirement age, a figure expected to rise to 27 percent by 2025 — 39.9 million people, according to the health ministry.

Eduard Karyukhin, head of the Dobroye Delo (“Good Deed”) organisation that works with elderly people, says “the stereotype of a retired woman who stays at home and looks after the grandchildren is changing”.

“Elderly people have enormous potential,” Karyukhin said. “They just need help with organising their leisure activities.”

The women involved in Oldushka said family members sometimes find it hard to understand their new pastime.

“My husband was very angry at first. He kept asking me: what are you doing this for?” said Kondrasheva.

“But then he saw this was making my life interesting with lots of activity and it was keeping me fit. And now he is supportive.”

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