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Fashion: Vivienne Westwood is 56, but don't let that worry you

Forty per cent of the UK's population are 50 and over. As fashion designers increasingly concentrate on youth, women in their prime are quietly perfecting their own style.

Maxine Boersma watches money, taste and maturity in magical combination.

Anne Boersma was 60 this year. She is a grandmother, and a svelte size 12. Her retirement has meant that she can exercise regularly, and she feels comfortable with her own personal style.

In 1992, she purchased the essential Pucci leggings in Italy. In 1994, she wore "the great white shirt". This year, she is commissioning her personal dressmaker to create an aubergine velvet lounge suit.

Based in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, Anne enjoys trips to health farms and regularly shops in Leeds and London. London has Whistles and Betty Jackson; Leeds brings Harvey Nichols.

Anne has always enjoyed fashion, but as she gets older she is less content to put up with clothes that aren't exactly right.

"In the Fifties and Sixties I loved buying clothes - Audrey Hepburn skirts and polo necks, Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra make-up. I wanted items that were a mixture of sophistication and fun. I had a green sports car in the Fifties, and dressed to be noticed in it. Elizabeth Taylor is still a role model.

"It's so much easier for older women to look good now - I used to think my mother was old at 30! I lost some interest in fashion as my children were growing up, but then I started to borrow my daughter's clothes from Warehouse. I'm lucky to be able to afford designer clothes now, and a dressmaker. As far as shopping is concerned, I really love Whistles."

Undoubtedly, loyal older customers now have more money to spend on fashion than ever before. Saga Services conducted a survey among its extensive customer database of people aged over 50. According to Phil Loney, sales and marketing director:

"The `Grey Market' is one of the most rapidly growing sectors. The UK has an ageing population: 18 million people aged over 50, currently representing 40 per cent of the adult population.

By the year 2021 the number of people in this age group will have risen to 23.3 million - 47 per cent of the adult population. Therefore, they are an extremely important group, and represent some of the country's most experienced and discerning consumers."

Ruth Corbett is the editor of Chic magazine, "For the woman who wasn't born yesterday". She agrees that female customers over 50 have greater spending power.

"From the response we get, the `grey pound' is incredibly strong. There is a real spending force. These women have always gone for classical clothes, they're not style victims. It's now also hip to have older models. We've just done a feature on mature models."

Marie Claire's fashion director, Sarah Walter, believes that despite extremes in fashion, "the general movement is wearable. People are doing very few minis - they are mainly just back on the knee. Many prominent fashion editors in America are over 50 themselves."

So, too, are many of our designers. Vivienne Westwood is 56. Christopher di Pietro, her sales and marketing manager, believes her clothes are suited to women of all ages.

"We have a lot of women over 60 as customers. There is a great gamut of styles for them. Some are classic suits in Forties and Fifties styles. The women who come in to buy these used to buy couture in Paris."

Maria Dalton chose to visit an image consultant at 70. She wore New Look outfits in the early Fifties. Realising that she could not afford designer wear now, she followed the consultant's advice and developed a capsule wardrobe of navy, cream and black. Her daughter Helen, 35, who is a teacher in Worcester, admires her mother's style and believes that the basic wardrobe means she can be more adventurous with accessories and make-up. "My mother may be in her seventies," she says, "but she beat me to Chanel's Rouge Noir."

Olivia Smith is an Essex-based image consultant with many clients over 60. She advises these women to develop a basic wardrobe, and to wear something soft around their faces:

"My oldest client is over 80 years old, and I was recommended to her by her daughter. By 60, women should be developing their own personal style. My advice is to be yourself - 100 per cent."

Anita Pallenberg, Jibby Beane, Tina Turner, Lauren Bacall - are all women who have developed their own personal look that has taken them beyond their middle years in style. The older they get, the more confident they look. If the micro-mini doesn't suit this season, (and if you have the legs, why shouldn't it?) the suit with shoulder pads will. The good news is that the Eighties Power Look is back, inspired by sixtysomething Joan Collins.

The design duo Pearce Fionda started in business believing their market to be the twenty-to-thirtysomething woman, but they soon latched on to the reality that, according to Andrew Fionda, she is "older in years but younger in mentality. She may be 50 but she feels 30. There's no way she's going to get into a polyester pleated number."

Lauren Hutton is a shining example. "Fifty-year-old-plus women are more style-obsessed than fashion- obsessed. They've found their own style, and are not interested in fashion gimmicks."

For the designers, age is not a factor. They are aware that more mature women are more likely to be able to afford their clothes than younger women. One of the highlights of their year was dressing 52-year-old Francesca Annis for the Academy Awards.

"She wanted drop-dead, sexy glamour," says Fionda. "She's got a fierce body."