As we are speaking, this native New Yorker is currently wearing a hat made of paper towels, and she looks magnificent. An artist, a weaver by nature, she is someone who has the ability to touch material and have it speak to her. To Deborah, anything linear and malleable is potentially wearable. There are really no limits, none.
An Intergenerational Role Model
As a globally exhibited artist, she has always had some visibility. When Ari Seth Cohen photographed her a decade ago for Advanced Style, it turbo-charged her visibility as a public person in places like Instagram and the mainstream press. In a world of few aspirational north stars in our age group, she has become an intergenerational role model. “I have so many younger friends who are interested in understanding aging and growing old. I have more 25 and 35-year-old friends than 75-year-old friends, which makes all this so much fun.”
This newfound later-life exposure has led to all manner of collaborations, including modeling jobs for major global brands such as H+M. She has at 74, opened up whole new creative possibilities for herself. Just before our conversation today, she had finished a 3-hour photoshoot. “As long as it’s fun, I’m willing to do it. If it’s not fun or interesting, I am now at the age when I can say “No thank you.”
Is the World Not Ready for Her?
Last week, she posted a nude and a few semi-nude photographs on Instagram, which of course quickly ran afoul of the Instagram censors. But before they could be scrubbed, the images threw off a huge volume of comments and she lost 300 followers. Seems not all the world is ready for what we see as being extraordinary images.
The comments ranged from “why are you doing this” (and her ‘why not?’ replies), to “How brave, How gorgeous!”
Debra shares, “It was not about trying to look sexy – it’s just landscape, its texture. What I am curious about is our prudish culture and how people are afraid of skin. We have no problem looking at elephants with all their beautiful textured skin. What does the elephant have that we don’t have?”
Being Fully Exposed, Naturally
But what was it like making these photos? Was it scary? “I had known him for a couple of years, nice guy, very good photographer. He asked me to do some nudes, and I said sure. I mean, what do I care at 74? At 16, I wouldn’t even wear a bathing suit I was so shy. At 74, it’s all about a sense of freedom. It just seemed really natural; it was not the least bit intimidating.”
This idea of what is beautiful and the mine-field that women are made to feel they must negotiate is something that is very much on her mind.
“Why is it that at the Oscars, there is cleavage down to the belly button and fake boobs the size of grapefruits? Why is that considered beautiful and it is expected, and it’s applauded? To me, that is gross. All these women – they all look the same. They look like they have all been to the same doctor; there is no individuality. It’s just boring. They look like Barbies. Why? Just to look young? What is the value of looking young? I wouldn’t want to be 16, 18, or 20 again for all the tea in China. I love being my age. It’s never been better.”
“Why all the silicone in the breast and then have to get it all removed? How can they walk around with these grapefruits without getting back problems? Why? It makes no sense to me. My motto is better with age, especially with health. I tell my audience to take care of yourself by 40 because by the time you are 60 it is a lot harder to turn it around. Health and self-care, to me, is a priority. It’s really about having the willingness and the commitment to vitality.”
Second Life Fashion
They sometimes call her “Debra Debris,” because most of what she works with are found materials, things that she recycles. She has some of her transformed found pieces in the upcoming show at the Philadelphia Museum: Art to Wear. These are pieces from 1968 and 1993, all made from found materials. “Back in the 80s, there was a lot of found metal on the streets because the cars were falling apart. I would collect and re-work them. Most of those pieces are in museums now. You can’t find metal like that anymore in NY.”
Eclectic, creative, and fearless. She likes to be known using a terminology she has employed since the 80s: ABC: assembler, builder and constructor. This visual artist, who used to do performance art, now considers that walking the streets of NYC to be a form of performance art today. “If I can put a smile on people’s faces from what I wear, then I am happy. It’s my contribution to world peace.” She sees her work as expanding people’s perceptions of what is possible. “I give people permission. Getting dressed is an act of play. Just play. You don’t have to look at fashion magazines; you don’t have to go shopping. It is not about trends and it is not about consumption. It’s about finding yourself using whatever is available.”
Gifted and Thrifted
“Everything I have on today I got at swap meets. It’s so much fun, and it’s so much more interesting than going shopping. We had 50 people at the last one, ages 25-90, and we had a ball. This stuff is not going into that landfill, that’s what this is all about. Ari gave me the title of Gifted and Thrifted. People send me stuff in the ail all the time because they know I will reuse it. It’s amazing.”
“I have been into sustainability for 55 years, knowing that the apparel industry is the second-largest polluter. That’s why I don’t buy anything new; we just have to alter it. We all have to do our part.”