The story behind ‘What Ali Wore’

Story highlights

Berlin waitress Zoe Spawton saw Ali pass her cafe each morning

Spawton noticed he was exceptionally well-dressed

She asked to take his picture one day spawning blog "What Ali Wore"

CNN  — 

Like clockwork, waitress Zoe Spawton would spot Ali walking past her Berlin cafe every morning around 9 while she was setting up sidewalk furniture.

Naturally, the mustachioed 83-year-old stood out in his impeccably tailored suits and bold ensembles usually topped off with an oddball flourish, be it a Nike knit cap, a diamante skull baseball cap or a silver chain around his neck.

“His outfits were so put together and he obviously took great pride in his appearance,” said Spawton, a 29-year-old photographer from Australia who has lived in Berlin for almost a year.

“Also, it was the way he walked,” she said in a Skype interview Thursday.

“He obviously had a bit of swagger.”

It took a few weeks of nodding, smiling and greeting Ali in broken German for Spawton to work up the courage to for his picture. He obliged and thus was born “What Ali Wore,” Spawton’s popular blog documenting Ali’s daily sartorial choices.

The Tumblr blew up on social media this week after a German street style blog featured an interview with her on Monday. Since then, Spawton said she has been fielding e-mails and interview requests from media outlets all over the world and new fans eager for a glimpse into Ali’s life.

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With just 31 images to date taken since August, something about Ali has captured the public’s imagination. Maybe it’s the way he leans into the camera with a beckoning stare, or his seamless transition from head-to-toe camouflage on one day to glen plaid three-piece suit the next.

“It’s a simple sort of idea but people are curious about other people. It’s been an interesting week, for sure,” said Spawton. She declined to give Ali’s last name or say where he worked, citing concerns for his privacy.

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    People tell her that Ali reminds them of their father or grandfather, she said, or that they can see the friendship developing between them with each photo.

    “What Ali Wore” comes off part style blog, part private journal documenting the relationship between a man in his twilight years and the rapt young woman whose attention he has caught as it evolves along with his transition from blazers and sport coats to puffy winter jackets.

    “First photo! Ali walks past the cafe I work at in Berlin every morning at 9:05am,” Spawton wrote in her inaugural post in October, featuring Ali in a crimson shirt with matching pointy boots and white creased slacks. “He always wears such great clothes. I don’t speak much German and he speaks a little bit of English, but I managed to ask if I could take his photo. He gladly accepted.”

    After that day, Ali began adopting the tilted pose that has become his signature, she said. He also began to bring her small gifts, like a piece of fruit or chocolate. He also appeared to start dressing for the shots, declining on some days to be photographed if he’d worn the same thing earlier in the week, she said.

    “Today was my first day back at work after two weeks and I think Ali and I were equally excited to see each other,” she posted on in January. “We’ve seen this suit before, however the way he is working that coat (and a new pose!) is just wonderful!”

    She eventually learned that he worked six days as a tailor nearby and that he made some of his own clothes. Otherwise, because of their language barrier, Spawton says she knew practically nothing about him until the two met randomly one night on the tram. She was returning home from visiting a friend and he was nursing a beer while on his way home, she said.

    She learned that he was originally from Turkey and lived in Berlin for 44 years. He was a retired doctor who now worked as a tailor and that he had lived alone for at least 10 years. Oh, and he has 18 children, she said.

    “What an amazing life. Can’t wait to learn more,” she posted on her blog.

    Since then she has not learned a whole lot more, though the two have gone on one extracurricular excursion to an apple orchard with his colleague from the alterations shop, she said.

    “There’s only a handful that we can say,” she said. “But in a way, when I do manage to glean those little bits of information from him, it makes it all the more rewarding.”

    She went to his shop for the first time last week to get measured after he informed her earlier this month that he was going to make her a skirt, she said. His flirtatious side came out as he asked her if she wanted a mini-skirt; she opted for something just above the knee.

    Maybe it’s his age, or the lack of commitment except for the promise of a photograph in exchange for being friendly, but there’s just something unthreatening about him, she said.

    “It feels so simple, just a friendship where we enjoy seeing each other,” she said. “He seems to enjoy having his photographs taken. It must be nice to have it acknowledged that he’s a stylish man.”

    The attention has been somewhat overwhelming, she said, but she appreciates it and so does Ali. She told him about it earlier this week in her broken German and she got the impression that he understood, and might have even stepped up his game for his new fans.

    “I feel as though Ali might have had an inkling that there would be a few more people seeing his photo today,” she said on her blog Thursday of his black striped suit, matching hat and red silk tie.

    “This is quite the outfit!”

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