More is more
Iris, documentary, rated PG-13, The Screen, 3.5 chiles
Less is more, you say? Not if you’re New Yorker Iris Apfel, a devotee of wildly hued outfits, oversized glasses, and an abundance of accessories. She’s the focus of this slight, mostly lighthearted documentary from one of the masters of the genre, Albert Maysles, who with his brother David co-directed Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens, among other films.
Iris would turn out to be his penultimate film before his death in March of this year.
Apfel had a highly successful career in interior design, helping more than one first lady redecorate the White House. With her husband, Carl, she founded Old World Weavers, a company that worked to re-create and preserve antique textile patterns. Now, at ninety-three, she’s a selfdescribed “geriatric starlet” who’s settling into her new role as fashion icon and designer’s muse — you might recognize her from ad campaigns for Kate Spade and MAC Cosmetics. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute honored her with a 2005-2006 exhibit, for which it borrowed many items from her closet and accessories collection.
Not much about Apfel is subtle — she combines colorful, seemingly mismatched items into “mad outfits” and layers on chunky necklaces and clacking plastic bracelets by the dozen. But Iris isn’t a showboat, either. She’s just a die-hard enemy of conformity, wearing jeans since the days when women weren’t supposed to and preferring four-dollar trinkets to something from Harry Winston. “I like individuality,” she says. “It’s so lost these days. There’s so much sameness. Everything is homogenized.”
Apfel spends much of the film’s 80-something minutes sharing her thoughts on everything from personal style (”When you don’t dress like everybody else, you don’t have to think like everybody else”) to aging (“You might come out looking like Picasso,” she says in opposition to plastic surgery, and when people ask her how she’s doing, she responds frankly, “I’m vertical”). We get an inside look at the Apfels’ carnival-like apartment, filled to the brim with art, furniture, sculpture, stuffed animals, and other knickknacks from around the world. Between cups of tea and shopping trips we share with her, there are talking heads who sing her praises — including Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Met’s costume institute, renowned photographer Bruce Weber, and the Apfels’ longtime housekeeper. Apfel and Maysles have an easy, friendly rapport — she occasionally addresses him directly, and he makes a few cameos.
While the film is mostly upbeat, it does have a subtle melancholic undercurrent. Carl turned one hundred during filming, and at times it’s clear she worries about him. Iris admits that matters of health sometimes keep her up at night. Still, it’s a pleasure spending this time with her, and we’d all do well to remember a few of her nuggets of wisdom. While she doesn’t dispense financial advice, when Iris Apfel talks, people should listen.
A rare bird: Iris Apfel