Fabulous 72-year-old British model shows style is timeless
"It shouldn't be about clothes for an older woman, we just need nice clothes," says Jan de Villeneuve.
The 72-year-old model has inadvertently become the poster woman for the anti-ageism movement in fashion, thanks to her appearances on the catwalk at London Fashion Week last month. Advocates of ageless style couldn't have found a better ambassador.
As de Villeneuve busies herself making tea, warming scones and pouring glasses of water drawn from a spring close to her converted barn in Kent, she pulls out a gloriously maximalist array of finds from her 50 years in the fashion industry.
Whether it's the exquisite 40s black dress with crystal embellishments she inherited from a stylish aunt or the £6 rose-gold brogues she spied in a charity shop the previous day, every item comes with a story. And de Villeneuve's memory is as razor-sharp as her silver fringe.
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De Villeneuve was one of the great models of the 60s and 70s, part of the Swinging generation with Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton among her contemporaries. They became the faces of an era where rigid expectations of conformity were swapped for creativity, freedom and experimentation.
She's been modelling since 1966 – she had a break from 1975 to 1988 to bring up her daughters Poppy and Daisy – but now she's having a proper "moment" again, after being cast in the Simone Rocha and Osman shows at London Fashion Week.
"Life doesn't end when you start getting a pension," she laughs. "Older women love fashion, too. I've always thought it would be nice if people of all ages, shapes and sizes were included on the catwalk because that's more relevant to day-to-day life."
Born and raised in Ohio, de Villeneuve studied architecture and design at university in Michigan, and planned to become a commercial interior designer. She completed a teaching course as a back-up – "Everyone did back then" – so when Mademoiselle magazine wanted to run a feature on what teachers wore, an acquaintance got in touch with her. The photographer from that shoot introduced her to the legendary model agent Eileen Ford, and her future was set.
"When I was in high school, we wore white gloves to events and a girdle to hold your stockings up," she recalls. Fast forward a few years and she found herself at the epicentre of a brave new world. "In 1968, I was in Paris when all the 'ban the bra' protests were happening, I thought that was great because I never really needed one."
As her career took off and she moved to London, de Villeneuve began to embrace an individual, creative way of dressing. In her hallway hangs a beautiful bias-cut cream and dusky rose dress she discovered in a New York antique shop's one-dollar box in 1967. "I suppose now you would call it vintage, but we never used that word back then," she says.
There were plenty of opportunities for dressing up in London at that time. "My ex-husband Justin [de Villeneuve, the man who discovered and managed Twiggy] and I would go out dancing practically every night. We went to a wonderful gay disco called Yours or Mine, or Tramp. We dressed up in those days; on a night out we'd wear something nice."
De Villeneuve became a barometer of style for the girls back home, too. "I would go to my father's law firm to meet him for lunch. When mini-skirts were popular I always wore mine, but then when long dresses were back a few years later my father said that one of his colleagues had pulled him aside and said, 'Tell Jan not to go round and see the secretaries'. They liked the short skirts and they didn't want the secretaries copying my new long ones."
After her divorce, and as a mother to two young daughters, de Villeneuve's going-out opportunities diminished, but she says the invites she received from friends to dress up for dinners at weekends were her saving grace – and a chance to give her growing collection of Bill Gibb, Ossie Clark and Thea Porter pieces an outing.
"I pay no attention to trends, but I do know that they all come back," quips de Villeneuve, who is now signed to Models 1 Classics division. Upstairs are several rooms bursting with artfully arranged clothes. There is undoubtedly enough here for a museum retrospective, and then some. On the side of one wardrobe glints an opulently embellished black velvet jacket. "I did a little show with Thea in 1975. I took two pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes to wear – this was before Manolo had been in Sex and the City and all that," de Villeneuve remembers.
"When one of the other models took them I was so annoyed, thinking 'Why did I bring my good shoes?' They had been expensive. To make amends, Thea gave me this jacket which at the time seemed quite OTT but a bit later when Versace did all his gold stuff it was really perfect."
Since her London Fashion Week appearance, things have been non-stop for de Villeneuve. Besides several photoshoots and projects in London, she nipped over to Paris to model for avant-garde label Aganovich. She's excited about the pieces they're going to send her by way of payment. "There are these tweed jodhpurs which are amazing and unusual but they'll be practical and warm," she says.
She has never been one to throw things away, but the birth of her granddaughter Edie eight months ago has sharpened her resolve to hoard. "Now, I look through everything and just think, 'Maybe Edie will want to wear this someday'." Her babysitting trips to Oxfordshire, where daughter Poppy, a director and photographer, lives, have ignited a passion for Bicester Village, the designer discount outlet. "I never thought I would want to go, but it's so fabulous," she laughs.
Nestled among the deep-purple Jean Muir and tiered wool Yves Saint Laurent dresses from the 70s are prized recent purchases. She adores H&M's designer collaborations and has a slew of pieces from the latest Kenzo collection. One of her most prized new items is a Missoni coat from TK Maxx which is "a work of art, but I can see how lots of people might have thought it would be difficult to wear because it has knitted sleeves."
She shops online, but only for specific things, such as when Liberty collaborated with Uniqlo.
Getting older has had little influence on de Villeneuve's bohemian approach to style, although she concedes that "maybe I like to be more comfortable now". Nor is she a fan of cosmetic work. "I could have had my chin done but it's expensive. I look like an older person, which I am. I'm not going to look 27 again."
Besides, she is the ultimate advocate for the power of a brilliantly cheering and individual outfit to imbue an instant youthful glow.
- The Telegraph, London