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Iris Apfel: The Inspiring Fashion Icon at 93

A new documentary captures her idiosyncratic style

Iris Apfel’s got modeling gigs with Kate Spade and Alexis Bittar, a “color collection” with MAC cosmetics, a line of jewelry she designed, a professorship and now a documentary about her career, marriage, unique style and creative spirit.

She loves it all. “How many 93-year-old cover girls do you know?” she asks in response to my question about whether she expected the recent twists and turns of her life. “It’s great fun.”

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Iris is director Albert Maysles’ last documentary; he died in March. The charming film with it’s straight-talking, funny subject opened in New York and L.A. and is rolling out to theaters nationwide in May.

Maysles’ approach was to follow Apfel around as she worked — modeling, arranging jewelry on shop window mannequins, sorting the couture collection she’s donating to a museum, teaching. He also caught her at play, whether on a quest for fashion in Harlem or hanging out at home with her husband, Carl, who celebrated his 100th birthday during the course of filming.

We learn how Apfel morphed from a well-known, respected fashion insider to a high-profile style maven whose white hair and signature big, round glasses make her instantly recognizable. Always, she’s loved color, mixing patterns and a “more is more” approach to wearing her massive collection of jewelry.

(MORE: On a Mission to Make Fashion for Real Women)

Use Your Imagination

How did Apfel come to create her distinctive style? She credits a happy childhood that forced her to use her imagination.

“I was an only child and the first grandchild on both sides,” she said in our phone interview. “My parents would take me to my paternal grandmother’s every month or so, and after they finished patting and petting me, the adults got bored with me, and I was left to my own devices while they went off and got drinks and played cards or whatever they did.”

Her grandmother let Iris play with bags stuffed full of fabric pieces, telling her to make whatever she wanted and that she could take home her creations.  Iris would sit on the floor piecing together different combinations of fabrics and using them to create playhouse rooms or outfits.

“I feel very sorry for children today,” she said. “We had radio and we had to imagine the characters and scenes. Now there’s nothing left for children to imagine. Everything is prepared and they push a button to get it.”

Imagination, she said, is “why my museum shows have been so wildly successful.”

The first of those shows was in 2005 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Titled Rara Avis (Rare Bird), it showcased her jewelry collection styled the way she would wear it, layering pieces together to create a sculptural look. “People see how I put it all together, and they respond to the glamour, the fantasy of it. It captures their imagination.”

A Creative Career

Early in her career, Apfel was an interior designer and had a business with Carl. Once, she had in mind a fabric she wanted but couldn’t find, so she hired a weaver to make it for her. That led to the Apfels forming a custom textile manufacturing business. They traveled the world seeking design inspiration and collecting the one-of-a-kind furniture and art their clients wanted. Those clients included nine presidents, as the Apfels consulted on White House restoration projects.

The Apfels eventually sold their business and expected to retire. But when the museum show happened, Apfel became an “It” girl and has been working almost nonstop ever since. It’s common for her now to take 50 phone calls a day.

Guided By Inspiration And Style

She’s shopping less than she used to, she said, because she’s too busy and because what she sees for sale has “very little creativity, and it’s all very expensive; it’s hideous and sad.”

Instead, she’s turned her attention to teaching, a pursuit she started when the University of Texas approached her saying their fashion department needed help preparing students for careers.

“They all live in this red carpet bubble,” Apfel said. “They think you have to be a designer or merchandiser. But there’s all kinds of fabulous parts of fashion about which they know nothing, like licensing or trend forecasting. I bring them to New York for a week and take them to the top echelon of people in the field to learn from them and the students tell me it’s a life changing experience.”

Apfel said she has her hands full with new projects, that she is “always designing” and is now writing a book.

She claims not to have a creative process, but said she trusts her gut and finds inspiration everywhere. “I’m inspired by just getting up in the morning and being alive,” she said. “You’re saturated with images all day long, bombarded with sensory impressions, and that stimulates me, and it’s always different how something affects you from one day to the next. It’s individual.”

In the film, Apfel recounts a story of working at Loehmann’s, the famous New York department store and noticing how Mrs. Loehmann would stare at her.

“It made me uncomfortable. Then one day she called me over. She told me, ‘You’re not pretty. You’ll never be pretty. But it doesn’t matter. You’ve got something better. You’ve got style.’”

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