The Unstoppables: Martha Stewart, Giorgio Armani & More Share The Secrets Of A Lifelong Career

By Ruth La Ferla and Guy Trebay
New York Times
Entrepreneur and media mogul Martha Stewart, 82, who is currently writing her autobiography, in Palm Beach. Photo / Ysa Pérez, The New York Times

For these creatives, ambition is undimmed by time.

What does ambition look like at 90? How do you explain the drive that makes people like Giorgio Armani, fully in command of his global design empire as he approaches his 10th decade, tick? When artist Betye Saar wakes every day, she

Why bother? Wasn’t retirement supposed to be the goal of a contented old age? Didn’t the plan call for taking up needlepoint or golf? The old, as it happens, represent a rapidly growing global population: The proportion of those 65 and above is increasing at a faster rate than those below that age, according to World Population Prospects, a United Nations study. Between 2022, when the report was issued, and 2050, the global population of those over 65 is expected to rise to 16 per cent from 10 per cent. People are already working longer, and, as they do, it would appear that a road map is needed, a means of understanding what keeps people like Martha Stewart not only undiminished by age but actively in the game.

Over the past months, we asked what makes people like Stewart so seemingly unstoppable. Is there an explanation for why, besides prosperity and good health, some people are driven to chase their dreams long past the age when recent history suggests we were meant to be kicking back in our rocking chairs?

All interviews have been edited and condensed.

Martha Stewart, 82, has ‘never-ending curiosity’ (and a few regrets)

This year I made time to grow the best vegetables, monster vegetables, that I’ve ever grown in my life. My houses are never done. And I’m writing my autobiography. That’s the scariest project for me because I don’t really like everything about myself where I’ve been, what I’ve done.

I get up at 6:30 every morning. My housekeeper comes at 7, and I can’t be in bed when she arrives. That would be very embarrassing. I’m a bad sleeper, in any case. At times I’d rather watch a documentary. Other times, I might be anxious, not for me but for my grandchildren. If I wake in the night, I read the headlines to make sure we’re not being bombed.

Maybe a little uncertainty can help fuel ambition. When I left my job on Wall Street, I knew I had to create a career for myself. I became a caterer, catering parties every night. Still I thought, ‘Will there come a time when my granddaughter she’s 12 is asked, ‘What did grandma do?’ And all she can say is ‘Oh, she made parties for people.’ I thought, ‘I have to do something more than this.’ That was in the 1980s, when I wrote my first book, the one on entertaining.

At that time I wasn’t keeping my eye on the home, even though I was known as a homemaker. It wasn’t enough for a marriage. Maybe I regret not having had more children. Maybe I regret that my marriage ended abruptly. We’d been together 27 years. That used to be considered a long time, so when a long marriage ended, it was like somebody died. Maybe I would have liked getting married again. I didn’t, but I don’t mind. Still, I’m curious about what could have been.

My never-ending curiosity drives me. Will it stop? That’s never even occurred to me.

Current and upcoming projects: Autobiography in progress; an untitled Martha Stewart documentary from R.J. Cutler, who directed The September Issue, to stream on Netflix in 2024; a PBS documentary series, Hope In the Water, set for broadcast in 2024; a partnership with Samsung for a 2023-24 advertising campaign; a line of gardening clothes and accessories in collaboration with French Dressing Jeans and Marquee Brands.

— Ruth La Ferla

Artist Betye Saar, 97, who has more work than she knows what to do with, in Los Angeles. Photo / Kayla James, The New York Times
Artist Betye Saar, 97, who has more work than she knows what to do with, in Los Angeles. Photo / Kayla James, The New York Times

Betye Saar, 97, is making some of the best work of her life

Being raised during the Depression, we all learned to be creative with what we had on hand. At Christmas or on my birthday, I always got art supplies, and I was jealous that my siblings got bikes and stuff. I realise now that my parents were fostering my creativity.

An early influence on my becoming an artist was Simon Rodia. My grandmother lived in Watts, and we would walk by the Watts Towers when they were being built. I was fascinated by how he used bottle caps and corn cobs and broken plates trash, essentially to make art, to make something beautiful. Then, much later, in the 1960s, I saw the work of Joseph Cornell. He refined the use of found objects and materials and boxes, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve kind of been doing that, too.’ I didn’t know it was called assemblage, but it made sense to me and set me in that direction as an artist.

The main challenge, I guess, to being an artist is how to make a living. But being a creative person means you have to find ways to do this. I studied design at UCLA, and after I graduated, I made greeting cards; I made jewellery; I got into printmaking and then sold my prints. I taught art classes in colleges all over the states. My creativity kept evolving with my needs as I got married and bought a house, had my daughters and put them through college. Through it all, I loved making art. It kept me going.

I still want to make art. Sometimes in the morning when I wake up, it’s hard to get out of bed, hard to get back into my body and get it to move. But I do it. Not everyone has a reason to get out of bed, something they love to do and that gives their life meaning. I am so lucky that I have that as part of my life. I don’t really think about my age, unless someone mentions it, though I guess I feel middle-aged which for me is, like, 50 to 70. It would be kind of neat to live to 100, to have 100 revolutions around the sun. I’m pretty close.

Current and upcoming projects: Completed Drifting Toward Twilight, an installation at the Huntington Library in New York City; Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; Betye Saar: Serious Moonlight at the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne, Switzerland; and completed a newly commissioned artwork for Paraventi; Folding Screens from the 17th to the 21st Century at the Fondazione Prada in Milan.

— Guy Trebay

Actress Joan Collins, 90, whose memoir is about to be released, and will soon begin a British theatrical tour, at home in Los Angeles. Photo / Amy Harrity, The New York Times
Actress Joan Collins, 90, whose memoir is about to be released, and will soon begin a British theatrical tour, at home in Los Angeles. Photo / Amy Harrity, The New York Times

Joan Collins, 90, refuses to be defined by age

I love writing; I love acting, going onstage and doing my little one-woman show; and I refuse to be defined by a number, by an age. I think that’s terribly old-fashioned and not relevant in today’s world.

But you have to be resilient in this business. Rejection is a part of it. I look with dismay at so many of my fellow actors, fallen by the way because of drink and drugs. My father he was a theatrical agent instilled in me that I should develop skin like a rhinoceros and be like a marshmallow on the inside.

You also need patience. This business is a waiting game. For example, a script was written for me about the Duchess of Windsor [Wallis Simpson]. I’ve been wanting to do it since the 1980s. We got a green light only a month ago. Years ago I thought it would be wonderful to do a picture about growing up with my sister, Jackie. It just hasn’t come off.

It would be set when we were children, during the Blitz. At the time I didn’t feel fear. I didn’t know about the bombings. We would pick up shrapnel in the streets, and in the evening I would put it in my cigar box. We would draw silly pictures of Hitler. We were evacuated 10 or 12 times. We would be in the tube stations, and people would be playing their harmonicas and singing.

A question I’m often asked is, ‘Why are you still working?’ It’s such a fatuous thing to say. I keep on working because I love being busy. It’s tiring when I do my one-woman show, going to a new hotel every night. But it’s rewarding. The audience is so responsive. That buoys me.

Current and upcoming projects: Behind the Shoulder Pads, Tales I Tell My Friends, a memoir; Joan Collins Unscripted, a British theatrical tour.

— Ruth La Ferla

Designer Giorgio Armani walks the runway in Milan, Italy, 2023. Photo / Getty Images
Designer Giorgio Armani walks the runway in Milan, Italy, 2023. Photo / Getty Images

Giorgio Armani, 89, doesn’t think much about age

For those of us who grew up in the shadow of war, ambition was something natural, a vital drive. It was not so much a desire for fame and notoriety but rather an urge for personal fulfillment, a way to assert oneself outside the hardship and to overcome it. My mother and father taught me the value of commitment and hard work to get things done. It is a lesson that has never left me.

It took me some time to find my way. First, I studied medicine, then came La Rinascente [an Italian department store, where Armani worked in display] and Cerruti fashion, in other words. That was the moment when I found my ambition, when I discovered the power of clothes not only to change the way you look but, more profoundly, to influence the way you are and behave.

I think the challenges or problems and the rewards of staying in the game go hand in hand if you do this work for as long as I have and if you remain present. The main pressure is staying relevant without giving in to the pressures of the moment, which often feel very urgent but are forgettable in the long run.

In truth, I don’t think about age much. In my head, I am the same age I was when I started Giorgio Armani. Situations and people change, but the challenges and problems are all the same in the end. My way of tackling them hasn’t changed with great determination. Audiences evolve, however, and this cannot be underestimated. Stylistic coherence, therefore, must be elastic. Otherwise one becomes rigid. The ultimate gratification is to become a classic outside of and above fashion and to be identified with a style.

Current and upcoming projects: Designed 14 men’s, women’s and haute couture collections in 2023.

— Guy Trebay

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Ruth La Ferla and Guy Trebay

Photographs by: Amy Harrity, Kayla James and Ysa Pérez


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