Tibi Social Club: Carolyn Doelling
We had the pleasure of meeting Carolyn Doelling last year while visiting with Sherri McMullen, the founder of McMullen in Oakland, CA. Immediately, we fell in love with Carolyn’s energy and zest for life. At 73, she defies the presumptive definition of what it means to “retire” – in fact, this word doesn’t exist in her vocabulary. In a lively photoshoot conducted over Facetime, the writer-speaker-actor-model shares her perspective on reinvention, the role that fashion plays in one’s selfhood, and carving your own path.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Most recently, I spent 13 years of my work life as a Philanthropic Services Director at a community foundation, advising individuals with wealth on how to invest in nonprofits serving poorer communities. When I left the job, I did not say I was “retiring”.
Retirement is not a term I use often. It implies that you are finished and waiting for the end and believe me, people start treating you that way. I prefer terms like reboot, reinvent, recast, re-contextualize. It’s an attitude that fosters an excitement and thrill about aging. A freedom to enjoy a more exhilarating phase of your life. I am changing the conversation about what it means to grow old, to successfully age. So at age 73, I am relentlessly pursuing new experiences—redefining how I live my life on my own accord. I’m not going out quietly.
We have found your journey so unique and interesting – especially the notion of a ‘second career’ – what is your advice for people who desire to make a change?
There are numerous cliches I could use to answer this question, all of which are valid: Change is inevitable, why not control it in a positive way. Cherish the blessings of what you have but it’s never too late to be something different. Be open to what else is possible. Take advantage of the gazillions of learning resources online to hone a new craft. Once you have decided on your next phase, Claim it! Name it! Shout it out… I’m a writer! I’m an actress! I’m a model! - then climb your way into that space. Ask others for help, for ideas. Start now! Be persistent!
Can you live multiple lives in one lifetime?
Of course, and we all do live multiple lives. Life evolves. We all serve different “masters” at different points in our lives: our parents, our teachers, our children, our employers, our clients, our community; each requires us to play a different role and hopefully evolve into a better version of ourselves. Limitations are all imagined.
What inspires you especially as you pursue this new chapter as a fashion model, a writer, a speaker, a kick boxer?
I am inspired to be a “role model” model and writer each day as I encounter the women in my age group who are oblivious to their own potency. I am inspired when I see the fashion industry ignore older women as models even though women over 50 have buying prowess of over 2 trillion dollars. I’m inspired when I read that only 4% of women view themselves as beautiful because they are comparing their looks to a standard of beauty that has been set by some advertising executive who assumes we all have aspirations to be young or white or blonde. There is a burgeoning wave of 72 million baby boomers, ages 55- 73, who do not aspire to be 20 again. We are more sure of ourselves, comfortable in our own skin. We aspire to be fit, to be healthy and we cherish authenticity. So we’ll see if the fashion and advertising industries change their stripes in the future to keep afloat economically.
Do you always have a well of inspiration you can draw upon?
During the pandemic, I observe hardworking women who are giving it all to save their businesses throughout this crisis. Amy Smilovic, of course, one of the hardest working women in the business. Sherri McMullen, the boutique owner who gave me my first modeling break, Nina Arias, Tanya Holland, Liz Fortunato, local restaurant owners and so many others. I admire their grit, their hustle which I try to emulate. I am also jazzed by the positive comments I receive when I share my mission with others. Initially, I was focused on women in my age group, the 70 year olds, but the more I shared my ideas, the more encouragement I received from 30 year olds; which is great because stamping out the negative perceptions of aging and getting old should start with the younger ones. They are excited about what I am doing… I don’t dare disappoint them.
What three adjectives describe your style?
Classic, Versatile, Elegant. (All with Flair or Swagger.)
Has your style changed over time? How did you find your style?
My style has seen a number of iterations and transitions. What I wear today represents an intersection between my childhood and adulthood. I am lucky enough to have grown up during Jim Crow in the segregated South. I know most people would not feel that was luck given the violence and indignities imposed on Black people. However, that era instilled in me a sense of self- sufficiency, entrepreneurship, and passion for community that I still carry with me to this day. Style and fashion were an essential signifier of your social status and an activator of your intentions for success. In the 60’s my style was more patterned after both the tailored looks of women like Greta Garbo and Lauren Bacall that I viewed on the black and white TV shows. Or the elegant, luxurious, feminine looks showcased in Ebony magazine and the Ebony Fashion Fair. I loved natural fibers; wool gabardine, linen, organza, silk, satin. (and still do). Today my style is still Classic and I love elegance but I’m a bit more chill. Comfort and versatility now play a more prominent role in what I choose to wear.
We believe that a love for fashion and style is ageless – what advice would you give to older women who might think fashion is for the ‘young’?
Fashion and style are tools of artistic expression that can be used strategically to influence behaviors- yours and others. Older women have more independence to dress and be whoever we want to be: to choose to walk into a room and go unnoticed or to walk into a room and have all heads turn and ask “Who the hell is that”? Fashion gives you the power to choose how others view you or the power to be true to yourself and not care what others think. You can be You! Why not use that power?
How does wearing Tibi make you feel?
Even at first glance, Tibi’s commitment to quality and fine craft are unquestionable. Tibi appeals to my classic style but with a subtle twist of ingenuity and flair. The clothing is functional, versatile and accessible for all ages. Sounds trite but it’s true: Wearing Tibi makes me feel more alive —activating all modalities of my senses…If I walk two blocks wearing Tibi, I receive three or four positive reactions from total strangers. A tried and true way to have more social interactions.
Do you feel like the quarantine has changed how you think about getting dressed?
Most definitely! These times of uncertainty and sense of loss have created a perfect opportunity to utilize fashion as a positive force when so much of the world feels like it's spinning out of control. I utilize color and dress daily as reassurance for myself and others to maintain a feeling of normalcy. I deliberately get dressed for brief runs to the market and on my daily walks to preserve a sense of identity and routine while also lifting the spirits of others.
What excites you about the future?
Within the past six months we have witnessed a drastic transformation of every aspect of our lives. It’s interesting to consider the future because of that. On a macro level: the confluence of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests have motivated formerly disparate groups to show up, united for change. I am extremely sanguine about the potential outcomes. My previous experience with other protests throughout the years, including in the Civil Rights movements, suggests these protests will have more sustaining power, advancing much needed policy changes. On a personal level: I now have more time during the pandemic’s “stay at home” mandate to complete several exciting projects: A book about my family’s historical African American experience; preparation of a TedTalk, IG Live presentations. And oh yes, I have more time for exercise so I plan to pitch companies for a Fitness model photo shoot in another 6 months.Yep, a fitness model at age 73.