Be­hind the specs

Be­hind the Specs

Philippine Tatler - - ON THE WEB -

Dar­ing, un­usual, fab­u­lous, and iconic: we take a closer look at the life and ca­reer of Iris Apfel who is liv­ing proof that, while fash­ion is fleet­ing, style is for­ever

In­te­rior de­signer, ex­plorer, col­lec­tor, fash­ion de­signer, model, and muse— the story of Iris Apfel is as kalei­do­scopic as her fa­mous wardrobe. Chloe Street dis­cov­ers a sear­ing wit and in­sa­tiable ap­petite for life be­hind those over­sized glasses

“I don’t have rules be­cause I’d only break them”

“Ithink the worst fash­ion

faux pas peo­ple make is look­ing in the mir­ror and see­ing some­body else, or see­ing some­thing that isn’t there. I try to be truth­ful and hon­est,” says 95-yearold New Yorker Iris Apfel. “You have to play around with an out­fit; it’s like do­ing a paint­ing.”

Perched like a tech­ni­colour pea­cock on the sofa of a suite at the Land­mark Man­darin Ori­en­tal, Iris, whose long flight to Hong Kong has in­duced a bad bout of sci­at­ica, is ex­cited about her first visit to Asia. “It took me 95 years and 30 hours to get here,” she quips, ever ebul­lient. She’s wear­ing vin­tage red satin Sal­va­tore Ferragamo slip­pers, a mul­ti­coloured patch­work jacket she picked up in Afghanistan, and what she wryly de­scribes as her “itty bitty mini beads,” vast metal spheres jan­gling about her neck. Sim­ply be­ing in Iris’s pres­ence is fun.

To­day’s en­sem­ble is just one of the thou­sands of idio­syn­cratic get-ups for which the slightly built nona­ge­nar­ian is revered. A bona fide fash­ion lu­mi­nary and avid col­lec­tor, Iris has spent a life­time amass­ing a vast and en­vi­able col­lec­tion of cos­tume jew­ellery and cloth­ing from all over the world—so vast, in fact, that she re­quires mul­ti­ple apart­ments and ware­houses to store it all and has do­nated hoards for auc­tions and to mu­se­ums. Her uniquely fab­u­lous “more is more” ap­proach to dress­ing sits in re­fresh­ing con­trast to the mantras of min­i­mal­ism largely pro­pounded by the style set. Ex­tra­or­di­nary vin­tage and cou­ture finds are paired with tribal cloth­ing and thrift-store bar­gains, then piled with enough cos­tume jew­ellery to sink a small ship, cre­at­ing out­fits bet­ter de­scribed as art than ap­parel. The cherry on top of each sar­to­rial smor­gas­bord is, of course, al­ways a pair of Iris’s sig­na­ture black over­sized spec­ta­cles.

And yet, de­spite nowa­days be­ing one of the world’s most fa­mous — and thanks to said specs, in­stantly recog­nis­able—fash­ion in­flu­encers, un­til well into her 80s Iris was an un­known. It was not un­til Septem­ber 2005 when the Cos­tume In­sti­tute at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art in New York ded­i­cated an ex­hi­bi­tion to her col­lec­tion, that she came to wide at­ten­tion. En­ti­tled Rara Avis

[Rare Bird], the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­pulted her into the public lime­light and the fash­ion in­dus­try’s con­scious­ness. A flurry of press and at­ten­tion fol­lowed the smash-hit show. Who is the owner of this mad and mag­i­cal col­lec­tion, peo­ple won­dered?

“Noth­ing I ever did I ex­pected to do,” says Iris in one of the open­ing scenes of Al­bert Maysles’ 2014 biopic Iris. “It just kind of hap­pened.” An Art His­tory grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­sity, Iris worked for Women’s Wear Daily and for in­te­rior de­signer Eli­nor John­son be­fore set­ting up on her own as an in­te­rior de­signer. In 1948, she mar­ried Carl Apfel (“He was cool, he was cud­dly, and he cooked Chi­nese, so I couldn’t do any bet­ter,” she re­mem­bers in the film), and two years later the cou­ple founded Old World Weavers, a com­pany spe­cial­is­ing in the re­cre­ation of fab­rics from the 17th, 18th, and 19th cen­turies. In search of aes­thetic in­spi­ra­tion for her cloth de­signs, she and Carl, who died in 2015 at the age of 100, trav­elled the world— from the souks and bazaars of North Africa and the Mid­dle East to the flea mar­kets of Europe.

As the pair amassed unique cloths and cu­rios to in­stall in the houses of their so­ci­ety clients back in the US—from Estée Lauder to Greta Garbo—so, too, Iris ac­cu­mu­lated a trea­sure trove of trap­pings and trim­mings from ev­ery cor­ner of the globe. The out­fits she sported to the so­ci­ety par­ties of her clients back home seam­lessly wed­ded price points, eth­nic­i­ties, and gen­res—a Chi­nese shaman’s jacket might be paired with a feather boa and cou­ture Chanel cos­tume jew­ellery or an 18th-cen­tury French monk’s cas­sock belted and worn over a vin­tage cou­ture blouse. “There are no rules or reg­u­la­tions,” she says. “It’s in­stinct and gut feel­ing. I don’t do these things in­tel­lec­tu­ally; if you do, they’re al­ways very stiff. I don’t have rules be­cause I’d only break them.”

Un­usu­ally un­fazed by so­ci­etal norms and the opin­ions of oth­ers, Iris flips the mir­ror on those pass­ing judge­ment. “When I used to wear things that were a bit off­beat,” she re­calls (“bit,” one imag­ines to be an un­der­state­ment), “peo­ple used to al­ways say, ‘Oh, my good­ness! Don’t you worry about what peo­ple will think?’ and I would say, ‘No, I don’t care at all.’ That’s not my prob­lem. I dress for my­self and I hope other peo­ple will like it, but if they don’t, it’s their prob­lem, not mine.” Aside from her­self, there were two peo­ple whose opin­ion Iris valued, her hus­band’s and her mother’s. “If Carl didn’t like some­thing, I wouldn’t wear it. But oth­er­wise I dress for my­self. I like to be com­fort­able, I like to be chic and I like to be amus­ing. I think it’s im­por­tant that peo­ple dress so that they make a pleas­ant im­pres­sion on oth­ers. The world is so grey. I think it’s ter­ri­ble to wear the same old uni­form all the time.”

Did Carl ob­ject of­ten? “Very rarely,” says Iris. “He liked my taste and I used to have a won­der­ful time dress­ing him. He loved clothes and he wore them very well. He wasn’t afraid of be­ing a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. I mean, we don’t like to be freaky or rebels, but I think there should be in­di­vid­ual touches in the way one puts one­self to­gether.”

Achiev­ing quick suc­cess, Old World Weavers was asked to work on restora­tion projects at the White House

for nine dif­fer­ent ad­min­is­tra­tions. In the doc­u­men­tary, Carl lets slip that work­ing with Jackie Kennedy was trou­ble­some and is swiftly rep­ri­manded by his wife (“We’re not sup­posed to talk about the White House, Carl”). Did any of the first ladies have style, I ask? “Most of them didn’t. The lady that we worked with most closely was Pat Nixon. Not that she had any great style, but she was very pas­sion­ate about en­sur­ing the White House was made as beau­ti­ful as pos­si­ble. Jackie Kennedy was very well dressed,” she con­tin­ues, “and Mrs Bush al­ways looks very ap­pro­pri­ate. I think our cur­rent First Lady is well dressed and very beau­ti­ful, but I don’t think there are too many First Ladies of enor­mous style.”

She is sim­i­larly luke­warm on the topic of mod­ern-day celebri­ties. “They all have stylists who put them to­gether, which is a bit sad. I think more peo­ple should ex­press them­selves. It would be more in­ter­est­ing for them and for ev­ery­body else. Dress­ing can be a creative ex­pe­ri­ence and I think peo­ple should take ad­van­tage of it.” In Iris’s mind, peo­ple ought to be “aware of what’s go­ing on in the world and in­ter­pret it, and not fol­low slav­ishly and do the same old, same old. We need more cre­ativ­ity, more orig­i­nal­ity and more whimsy. I think it’s the young peo­ple’s job to seek that out.”

When it comes to dress­ing one’s age, the nona­ge­nar­ian is very prag­matic and be­lieves you “don’t have to wear sack­cloth and ashes, but when you’re older there are cer­tain things you should not do.” Her list of taboos for the older woman in­cludes miniskirts (“70-year-old knees are not pretty”), strap­less evening gowns (“they look quite ridicu­lous. No mat­ter how much of a jock you are, your arms get more flabby as you age”), long hair and heavy make-up. “I think try­ing very hard to look years younger than you are is silly and makes you look older,” she says. “Ev­ery age can have its own kind of beauty. When you’re young, you can take more chances and show off your body. But as you age, you can’t fight grav­ity. You can get a facelift if you like but if you’re 80 years old, no­body is go­ing to think you’re 32. It just looks silly. It’s ridicu­lous van­ity.”

For her, style is “at­ti­tude, at­ti­tude, at­ti­tude,” and own­ing the right at­tire is of sec­ondary im­por­tance. “Some of the most stylish peo­ple I know didn’t have any money and didn’t have any nice clothes; they just had an at­ti­tude and a way of car­ry­ing them­selves that made them look stu­pen­dous. That’s some­thing that you have to do for your­self. Fash­ion you can buy, but style you must pos­sess. It’s in your DNA.”

Those who would like to at­tempt a short­cut, how­ever, can pur­chase a dash of Apfel’s panache via the range of ac­ces­sories and ready-to-wear, Rara Avis, she launched on the Home Shop­ping Net­work in 2011 and still sells to­day. She also launched a cloth­ing line with Macy’s in 2016 and was in Hong Kong to launch an Iris-in­spired range of ac­ces­sories in part­ner­ship with Land­mark—from ban­gles to neck­laces and of course pairs of Iris-in­spired specs.

Dur­ing her time in Hong Kong, Iris charmed au­di­ences at two special panel dis­cus­sions. The first was a public fo­rum held in the Land­mark atrium, with chair Divia Har­ilela and pan­el­lists Michelle Ong, co-founder of Car­net jew­ellery, and fash­ion de­signer Masha Ma. The panel dis­cussed with Iris their views on orig­i­nal­ity, at­ti­tude and ex­pres­sions of style, and find­ing ful­fil­ment through cre­ativ­ity. The sec­ond was a pri­vate fo­rum held in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Fash­ion Farm Foun­da­tion. Speak­ing to a group of the city’s young, up-and­com­ing fash­ion de­sign­ers, Iris passed on her words of wis­dom, chart­ing a road to self-dis­cov­ery through style. “I al­ways en­joy work­ing with the young de­sign­ers and I hope I can help them in some way,” says Iris. While in town she also made sure to stop off at a few of the city’s most in­ter­est­ing mar­kets and shops—from check­ing out jade and an­tiques on Cat Street to try­ing on specs at the Land­mark. “Hong Kong is busy, bustling, and it’s very ex­cit­ing,” says Iris.

In ad­di­tion to lend­ing her aes­thetic eye to de­sign, Iris has also been in de­mand in front of the camera. She’s mod­elled for New York fash­ion house Kate Spade, ac­ces­sories de­signer Alexis Bit­tar, and cos­met­ics be­he­moth Mac. She graced the Novem­ber 2012 cover of

Dazed and Con­fused mag­a­zine wear­ing a Tweety Pie-es­que Rei Kawakubo cre­ation at the age of 91. It seems ev­ery­one wants a slice of her en­vi­able brand of non­con­for­mity.

Iris stands for fear­less­ness and fun in equal mea­sure, a com­pelling com­bi­na­tion. Her colour­ful and en­thu­si­as­tic ap­proach to liv­ing and dress­ing, cou­pled with her acer­bic wit and vi­tal­ity, make her an un­der­stand­ably lov­able and in­spi­ra­tional public fi gure. In the doc­u­men­tary, one of her staff mem­bers re­veals that her phone will ring “some­times 50 times a day” with re­quests for in­ter­views, mod­el­ling and col­lab­o­ra­tions. But does the “geri­atric starlet,” as she refers to her­self, en­joy all the at­ten­tion?

“Oh, sure,” she says. “I’m the old­est liv­ing broad who’s ever graced a cover. I mean, how many 95-year-old cover girls do you know?”

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