In a world where Instagram is a major fashion dictum, Influencers have the power to move merchandise, and reportage on what Kate—and now Meghan—wore creates a sensation and a sell-out, Iris Apfel is indeed a rare bird. In a world where everyone is trying to look like someone else—or everyone else—Iris stands out. She doesn’t look like anyone else. Nor does she want to. In a world of follow-the-tribe conformists, Iris is a bright beacon of individuality.
Since becoming a geriatric starlet with a Met show, modelling gigs and interviews, a documentary about her life, a Barbie doll and emoji doppelgänger, a clothing and accessory line, an eponymous cosmetics collection, and more—much, much more—Iris remains Iris. She hasn’t sought out any of these projects, they’ve pursued her. And she hasn’t made it easy for them either: they have to find her and phone her (she doesn’t email, text or even use a computer). She bases her decision on whether or not to take on new a project according to her instincts and if it sounds like fun. The World’s Oldest Living Teenager is not just inspiring the world with her style, but with her attitude:
I never expected anything, I just feel things in my gut and I do them. If something sounds exciting and interesting, I do it—and then I worry about it later. Doing new things takes a lot of energy and strength. It’s very tiring to make things happen, to learn how to master a skill, to push fears aside. Most people would rather just go with the flow: it’s much easier. But it’s not very interesting.
And now Iris, 96, can add author to the long list of her accomplishments. Her book, Iris Apfel: accidential icon, is a well-written (Iris was once a journalist) and well-produced (170 full-colour pages) visual whirlwind. Falling into Iris’ orbit is not for the faint of heart. There are old photographs and mementos from decades past, and a sense of nostalgia for a world that no longer exists. Where jazz history wasn’t written in books in the library, because it was happening around the corner in the theatres and nightclubs; where discount couture was strung across pipe racks in a New York Aladdin’s cave for those savvy shoppers in the know and presided over by Mrs. Loehman who told Iris, You’re certainly no beauty but you’ve got something much better—you have STYLE; and where culture, history, and human nature was writ large in the teeming bazaars of the world in pursuit of a fabric or a find.
The book moves at a syncopated pace that is akin to Iris’ jazz-inspired, colourful life. Iris is the consummate artist, improvising here, there, and everywhere. From journalist to interior designer to textile doyen, Iris embraces the world wholeheartedly with curiosity and imagination. Her musings form the upbeat tone of the book, and it is Apfel’s confident and sure voice that comes through page after vivid page. It is with sadness that Carl, her sweet Prince and husband of 67 years and to whom the book is dedicated, is not with her to share her publishing success. There is no question that Iris knows herself very well. There’s a soul behind the extravagant accessories and bold fashions she dons, and a lightness and humour in how she takes stock of her place in this crazy thing called life.
In a world of insta-everything, Iris is a lesson in time. She is a bit puzzled at becoming a fashion icon in her 90’s. She says she’s not doing anything different than she’s always done. She figures her overnight sensation took 70 years. Her astounding closet has taken a lifetime to acquire—she started collecting when she was 12—and represents almost a century of adventures, travels, and haggling in flea markets. Iris loves the chase even more than the acquisition. The book is a testament to Iris Apfel’s full, rich, and interesting life. Iris is not a hollow fashion image, or ephemeral It-Girl, Iris is the real deal—she has moulded fashion to her image not the other way around. This is the secret to her assurance and influence: she doesn’t find herself through fashion, she uses fashion to express who she is. And Iris is a character. She’s no ancient relic or fuddy duddy either, she has captured the attention and hearts of the modern world. As fashion designer Dries van Noten enthralls,
She breathes young air, thinks young thoughts, and gathers no dust.
As a reader familiar with Iris’s story, having read countless articles and interviews and written about her myself, I still found the book highly entertaining and insightful with material I had not encountered elsewhere. I loved the clever dual cover jacket design, but wished for a ribbon bookmark—in some Iris-tastic fabric design (leopard perhaps, or an Old World Weavers print)—because I consumed the book in delectable morsels rather than devoured it in one sitting. One of my favourite stories in the book is about Carl’s ring which became a fixture on his finger for more that fifty years. The segment is illustrated with fanciful drawings, but no photo of the actual ring which I was desperately curious to see. Iris describes it as shaped like a lion in the form of a throne chair which is intriguing and not so easy to imagine. I couldn’t find an image of this jewel from King Farouk on the Internet either, so it remains as mysterious as the tale that surrounds it.
There is no doubt a wonderful story to be told about the making of this book from the publisher and editor since this author is notoriously highly engaged in whatever she undertakes, and decidedly brooks no nonsense. That Harper Collins put their imprint and investment behind an old-fashioned ink-on-paper book in the face of 538,000 instantaneous Google search results from her name alone, shows just what a force Iris is. Her status as Icon may be accidental, but it is Iris’ unique and irrepressible style, her verve, and genuine delight in life that have propelled her to stratospheric stardom.
And that’s no accident. That’s Iris.
Iris Apfel, accidental icon was graciously sent by HarperCollins Publishers for my unbiased review.