There cannot be many 95 year-olds who spend their days dressing up in avant-garde designer clothes and posing in them wittily for Instagram posts which go on to be ‘liked’ by thousands. But this is exactly how Austrian nonagenarian Ernestine Stollberg is passing her tenth decade- and she is having a wonderful time whilst she’s at it.
“We really have fun doing this together,” she says of her friendship and creative collaboration with Markus Strasser, co-owner and stylist at the Park boutique in Vienna where Stollberg, fondly known as Erni, has become the much adored in-house model.
Over the past year, Stollberg has become something of an online fashion sensation, picking up legions of fans who love the spirit which she brings to every look which Strasser puts together for her, whether it’s an unashamedly madcap Junya Watanabe coat or a ladylike chiffon dress by Ann Demeulemeester.
The pair first struck up a friendship a few years ago. “We met on the street and sometimes chatted a bit, Erni lives around the corner from the shop,” says Strasser. “When we got a dog three years ago, she came to the shop more often, she just loves dogs.” However, it wasn’t until last June that he first asked if he could take her picture. "She said yes. I immediately saw how photogenic she was, but on top of that, she has the natural talent to really understand what the look is about and to perform accordingly,” he reflects.
“Erni is also quite a character, not what you would expect of a 95 year old. I think that this collaboration is only possible, because we really like and trust each other, that makes us dare to do things that are usually not in people’s mind when they think about someone that age.”
Indeed, Stollberg has become part of ever growing movement of women- like models Maye Musk (69) and Jan de Villeneuve (72)- who prove that age need not be a barrier to enjoying fashion and expressing personal style. “I didn`t plan this, it just happened to me, because I met Markus and I don't really know what to say to other people of my generation,” she says carefully. “Maybe that things are possible, if you let them happen.”
“I was actually in shock by how well it was received by our customers,” adds Strasser. “I think that especially women are moved by the fact that age must not be necessarily understood as a limit. Especially younger women on Instagram identify with her as a role model and wish to be like her at that age. I have to say that I am really moved by these reactions, because we actually live in a world, where the beauty industry makes us want to believe that only looking young is beautiful. I think that there is something going on in society, more and more people have the vision to redefine these paradigms of beauty and age today. Erni proofs that aging naturally is definitely also an option.”
Starting a second career in your 90s is no mean feat, but Stollberg says that her background in dance and theatre (she was in a dance company where she met her husband in the 1930s and left Europe for Buenos Aires just before the outbreak of the second world war) has helped her during her to feel comfortable- “I am used to performing in front of the camera…[dance] helps me with modelling, because I remember the emotions and expressions.”
It’s an admission which makes perfect sense when you see the way she lifts her arms and makes a growling expression when wearing a leopard print dress or how she gracefully throws her head back laughing, raising a palm to her shoulder to enliven an image in which she is perched on a step ladder.
“We are having a lot of fun, that's for sure!” says Strasser of how he works with Stollberg. “I choose the look, try it on her, all of this happens in front of the mirror, because that's the moment when Erni intuitively understands the look. If we like it, we shoot it.” One of the most appealing elements of the shots of Stollberg is how naturally poised she appears- “apart from lipstick and glasses Erni is never wearing any make-up, so the shoots don't take long, I would say 10 to 15 minutes... I like the idea of not putting the focus on a special surrounding, but on the clothes and of course on Erni. This makes the photos very authentic,recognizable and it supports the easiness I prefer for the pictures.”
Stollberg wears everything from Sacai knitwear to Christophe Lemaire tailoring with enviable breeze in Strasser’s shots, the ultimate poster woman for an ageless attitude to getting dressed. But she is still learning about the designer names she is wearing. “I am not so familiar with designers, it is more when I like something I know. I always bought beautiful things, but was never paying too much attention to specific designers,” she explains. “I liked Park from the beginning, I always looked at the shop windows before I actually met Markus but I would not wear all of it in my private life, but certainly there are a lot of pieces I find beautiful.”
When she’s not modelling, Stollberg says that she prefers “quite classic clothes.” “For the moment, I always wear my Burberry coat over a pair of wide jeans with a sweater. For summer I wear a lot of silk with print. The work with Markus has not really changed my style.” The words of a woman whose sense of chic is as innate as ever.