Iris Apfel will be 95 years old this year. The eclectic fashion icon, with her flamboyant style and signature over-sized eye glasses, has long been a Rara Avis (rare bird). World-renowned for her sartorial brilliance and admired for her fearless self-assurance, Apfel blends fabulous flair with larger-than-life joie de vivre.
Iris was born in Queens, New York, an only child of Jewish parents. Her father, Samuel Barrel, worked in the family glass and mirror business. Her elegant, and always impeccably dressed and coiffed, Russian mother, who had fashion boutiques selling mainly accessories, inspired Iris. She began acquiring these things at age eleven, and after more than eight decades of scouring the markets of the world, her stash requires double-height closets and entire rooms in several homes devoted solely to her clothing and accessories. She does not call herself a collector, though:
I’m not a collector of clothes. I’ve got clothes to wear.
Of late, she has donated pieces to museums and archives. She has, however, not stopped looking. Or bartering. She has the eye of a shrewd style maven and the savvy of a seasoned shopper; it’s just who Iris is. But she is limiting herself, as she explains:
I’ve had to cut down drastically as I’ve run out of wall space. Fortunately, I’m not a minimalist, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I have a couple of storage spaces. I still buy small things that appeal to me and I still collect jewellery with a vengeance.
I’m not buying any more pieces. I mean, the only thing I buy now is jewellery. And some accessories.
One cannot help but chuckle and wonder if that could possibly be true.
Fashion was never Iris Apfel’s life work. She had, and continues to have, a large life outside her closet. She began her career as a copy editor for Women’s Wear Daily, then as an interior decorator, and, after her marriage to textile merchant Carl Apfel, co-founder of Old World Weavers in 1950. Their company produced exquisite, high-quality exact replications of 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th-century textiles. These were expensive, crafted by hand fabrics. As well as specializing in one-of-a-kind fabrics, the Apfels travelled the globe to source art, exotic furnishings, and design inspiration. Their elite and devoted clients included Greta Garbo, Jacqueline Onassis and Estée Lauder. They worked for various museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the State Department and the White House, conducting historic restorations during the administrations of nine presidents. Old World Weavers was sold to Stark in 1992.
Iris Apfel’s artistic mix of couture with flea market finds from different cultures and eras was light years ahead of her time. In 2005, Iris Apfel was the subject of an wildly successful exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—Rara Avis: Selections From the Iris Apfel Collection—which put her in the media spotlight. At 83, Iris was catapulted from retired textile tycoon to fashion It-Girl phenomenon. And although flattered, Apfel is nonplussed about all the attention:
Since then, Iris has taken it all in stride in a rather energetic way. She has been profiled in every major fashion magazine in the world; featured in Italian Vogue, (2007, photographed by Bruce Weber); appeared in advertising campaigns for Kate Spade, Coach, and Alexis Bittar; collaborated on a make-up collection for Mac Cosmetics; created an accessory line for The Shopping Network; eyewear collection for Eyebobs; serves as visiting professor at the University of Texas; her Park Avenue home was featured in Architectural Digest; and was the subject of an Albert Maysle documentary, Iris (2015).
Through it all, Iris Apfel remains calm, charming, witty, wise, sharp as a tack and tough as all get out. She is composed, she chooses her words carefully. Fiercely intelligent, she speaks her mind but refuses to answer “dopey” questions when interviewed. Iris Apfel is not only a fashion A Lister, she is a force to be reckoned with.
On Fashion: The worst fashion fashion faux-pas is looking in the mirror and seeing somebody else.
On Decorating: I think there’s a lot of wonderful decorating around, but it all looks the same. While some of these homes are very beautiful, they look anonymous to me. They could be suites in very expensive hotels, but they don’t tell you who lives there. I like an apartment that has some personality. When it comes down to it, everyone is different.
On Style: Fashion you can buy, but style you possess.
There’s no road map to style. It’s about self-expression and, above all, attitude.
On Her Glasses: When did the oversized style spark to you?
When I was a kid and I loved flea markets. Every time I saw an interesting looking spectacle frame, I bought them. They were for nothing then and I just put them in a box. I used to take them out every once in a while and put them on because I thought they were such an interesting accessory. I would wear them with no lenses which was kind of insane. And then when I needed glasses, I took the biggest pair I had and put lenses in. Everybody would say to me, ‘Why do you wear such large ones?’ And I would say, ‘The bigger to see you.’ That shut ‘em up. How many pairs of glasses do you have? I never count.
On Accessories: My mother knew if you bought a couple of really good architectural outfits and put your money into accessories, you could create a million different looks. She taught that to me, which I think was invaluable.
On Jewellery: I think jewellery can change an outfit more than anything else. Transformation, punch, individuality: One or all of the above are why you should wear jewellery.
On Skincare: I use very simple things on my skin. I haven’t got time. I would always get facials, and then come home laden with product, and pay a lot of money and never use it. Anyway, one day a dermatologist told me to use Cetaphil to clean my face, and as a moisturizer, and that’s what I do.
On Make-Up: I used to use eye shadow and very bright lipstick. I’m not good at putting on makeup, but you have to be a moron not to be able to put on lipstick.
I wear red lipstick because I like it and I think it’s becoming on me. Matisse once said, “A thimbleful of red is redder than a bucketful,” and Man Ray likened wearing red lipstick to the “dash and dignity of a courageous heart,” which sums it up perfectly. Red lipstick is minimal in its simplicity and elegance, but maximal in its impact, power, and glamour. If Minimal and Maximal had a baby, it would be the perfect red lipstick.
On Plastic Surgery: I think you can be attractive at any age. I think trying to look like a spring chicken when you’re not makes you look ridiculous. I’m very opposed to plastic surgery. I think if—God forbid—you’re in an accident, or if you were cursed with a nose like Pinocchio, you’d have to go and get it fixed. But just to get nipped and tucked, I think it’s very painful, very expensive, and having been in hospitals as much as I have, subjecting yourself to surgery when you don’t need it is not a smart thing to do.
On Ageing: Getting older ain’t for sissies, I’ll tell you. You have to push yourself when you’re older, because it’s very easy to fall into the trap. You start to fall apart—you just have to do your best to paste yourself together. I think doing things and being active is very important. When your mind is busy, you don’t hurt so much. Thank God I love to do things.
It’s a terrible thing how women these days are silently and subliminally bombarded with a fear of ageing. The advertising is disgusting. Cosmetics companies, in their ads, use 16-year-old models with flawless skin, then they retouch them until they look unhuman. Who can look like that? And if you have a little bit of confidence and half a brain, you shouldn’t be upset by this, but people are. American women are really psychopathic about the way they look – and it’s becoming the same way in Europe, so I’m told – and it’s pitiful and very sad. I mean, relax, have fun! You can look beautiful at any age, but you have to be intelligent enough to know that if you’re 90 and you go and get your face carved up, no one is going to think you’re 25. I think it was Chanel who said, ‘Nothing makes a woman look so old as trying desperately hard to look young.’
On Diet & Exercise: I’m very active and I don’t sit still very much. I like to eat well, I don’t like rich food, and I don’t eat junk food. I used to like to drink, not heavily of course—now I just drink wine at dinner. I like good, wholesome, well-prepared food. I don’t like glopped-up, I don’t eat cakes. Sometimes they say I don’t eat enough, but it’s better to eat less than more.
On the silly de-cluttering trend: I still have the dress I wore on the first date with my husband, which was more than 66 years ago. I still have it and it still fits.
Maxim: More is more; and less is a bore.
Sadly, Iris lost her beloved husband of 67 years, Carl, on August 1, 2015, just days away from his 101st birthday. They were always together: working, living, and travelling—to Turkey, Morocco, Lebanon—they went everywhere together. He loved and adored Iris, was never jealous or resentful of her over-arching popularity. He was, in fact, a bit of a fashion plate himself, often appearing in colourful bow ties, trousers in intriguing fabrications and patterns, and, like his wife, statement eye-wear. In the film Iris, Carl tries to explain the allure of Iris:
There was something about her that just got into me; it’s always there.
Iris inspires us, not to look like her; but to be ourselves. She is a rare bird in a world where everyone tries to fit in and look the same—she dares to be different; to stand out.
You have to look in the mirror and see yourself. If it feels good, then I know it’s for me. I don’t dress to be stared at, I dress for myself.
A traditionalist, she also believes that designers should know how to sew; that many of the world’s fine artisan crafts are being lost and being replaced by bland plastic mediocrity. Iris is a legendary individualist and non-conformist who bemoans a culture tapping away in front of a screen, not using their imaginations.
Iris Apfel is not only an icon to watch, she is one to listen to.