The term ‘fashion icon’ is both overused and often misused, but if there’s anyone who deserves the title it’s Iris Apfel. Schön! sits down with the 94-year-old style sensation.
Even if you don’t know her name (where have you been, by the way?) you will recognise her image, with her exuberant combination of colour and print, big and bold jewellery and signature owl like spectacles. This individuality and flair has earned Mrs Apfel the moniker of Rara Avis or Rare Bird of Fashion. We meet the native New Yorker, interior and accessories designer and collector extraordinaire at 080 Barcelona Fashion, for the screening of a feature length film by late and great documentary director Albert Maysles, entitled, quite simply, Iris.
Filmed intermittently over a period of four years, Iris almost didn’t happen. When first approached about the project, Apfel turned it down immediately. “I was so worried that they would try to portray me as some empty headed fashionista,” she explains. “I get crazy when people think I spend my life getting dressed.” But then, friends explained the enormous caché of working with Maysles. Sadly, the director died shortly after completing Iris, but left us with a worthy finale to his already impressive body of work – a film that is at once fascinating, funny (Apfel is the queen of one-liners) and incredibly touching.
Unscripted and unrehearsed, Iris simply follows Apfel in her still very active day to day life, whether making television appearances, teaching fashion students or spending time with charming husband Carl (who celebrated his 100th birthday during filming) in their eccentric and eclectic Manhattan apartment. It also gives an insight into her shopping methods, as she happily haggles her way around markets and African clothing stores. “Being well dressed and having style has nothing to do with spending money,” she states. “Sometimes, the people who spend the most look the worst.”
Apfel’s fascination with fashion began early. At 11, she bought the first item in her jewellery collection for the grand sum of 65 cents – a piece she still owns. She didn’t have many fashion icons – with the exception of Pauline de Rothschild and Millicent Rogers, who would be amongst her dream dinner party guests – but her mother, who dressed like the Duchess of Windsor and “worshipped at the altar of accessories”, taught her the value of a little black dress. Her father was “very much his own man, both intellectual and street smart. Common sense doesn’t seem very common these days.” As a child, Apfel was allowed to express herself, painting her bedroom walls black and making slip covers out of menswear fabrics. She was one of the first girls to wear jeans (teamed with a “crisp white shirt and gingham headscarf ”) when it was still scandalous. The now iconic oversized spectacles were collected and worn without lenses long before she needed glasses. Thus began a signature style and the start of a creative career. Having worked in fashion, Apfel successfully moved on to interior design, redecorating the homes of America’s finest, including the White House through several presidencies, from Kennedy to Clinton. Although not allowed to discuss this in detail (there is a priceless moment in Iris when she shushes Carl on the brink of spilling the beans on Jackie Kennedy), Apfel can reveal that “The only one who got really involved was Mrs Nixon. She would come to my showroom with the Secret Service, and everybody else. She didn’t know much about it and I never had the heart to tell her. She would go back to the White House with bags of fabric and the next morning she would call up very tearfully and say, ‘Oh, Mrs Apfel, please bring what’s right and come for lunch on Thursday.’ But no, if the presidents and their wives had input, it would be some kooky looking house! The idea that Mrs Kennedy did the White House is not exactly true. She was a very great image maker for herself.”
Not able to find the historical fabrics needed for her interior designs, Apfel started Old World Weavers with Carl, whom she had married in 1948. The textile business took off and took them all over the globe. Despite this success, it was only in 2005 – when The Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed her remarkable clothing and accessories collection – that the octogenarian was thrown into the limelight. Since then, she has been the subject of a coffee table book, designed sell-out jewellery collections and received proclamations in both New York and Harlem.
Apfel is amused by her fashion icon status. “I’m not doing anything differently than I did for the last 70 years,” she says. “It’s kind of weird, but I can’t say that I don’t like it.” On the contrary, at 94, she is as busy as ever, working on a collaboration with Neiman Marcus and a new book due out in December. “I feel so lucky and blessed that this has happened to me in my dotage,” she laughs. “It’s much better than being left out to pasture. I wouldn’t do very well, because I don’t know how to moo!”