The 93-year-old style icon on eccentric fashion, lasting love and all those bangles.
- Written By
- ALEXIS BRUNSWICK
Iris Apfel isn’t shy about speaking her mind, even if it’s not what she’s expected to say. “Appropriate seems to be a word that’s gone out of the lexicon,” bemoans the fashion icon to VIOLET GREY, never mind the fact that — at 93 years old — she wears plastic bangles to black-tie galas and has been known to sport candy-apple-red leather trousers.
But an element of surprise is part of Apfel’s charm. From her eccentric style and her late-in-life fame to her pleas that she’s neither a feminist nor a “fashionista” (although she certainly appears to be both), the charismatic nonagenarian has never fit neatly into a box.
Which, of course, makes her a most compelling subject for a documentary.
Opening in theaters this Wednesday, Iris, by legendary documentarian Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter), takes an in-depth look at the life and career of its titular star. Shot in the director’s signature cinéma vérité style and with unrestricted access, the film delves into Apfel’s private life, exploring her tender relationship with her 101-year-old husband, Carl, and their extensive world travels over the years as the owners of noted textile company Old World Weavers. Maysles (who passed away last month at 88) also traces Apfel’s rise as a self-described “geriatric starlet” and the 2005 Costume Institute exhibit “Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel” that honored Apfel’s sui generis style and effectively put her on the map. “She wasn’t always celebrated for her ideas, but she was always true to her vision,” says Iris producer Jennifer Ash Rudick. “That’s a legacy that transcends fashion.”
Now a style and beauty world fixture, Apfel developed a capsule collection with M.A.C. in 2011, for which she modeled, and took a turn in front of the lens for the Alexis Bittar spring ’15 campaign. This season, she shares a park bench with fashion’s other leading lady, Karlie Kloss, for Kate Spade, and she’s developed her very own line of costume jewelry for HSN, also named Rara Avis, boldly embracing the rare bird mantle she now wears proudly.
“In a world where grandmothers and their teenage granddaughters look surprisingly the same from behind, it’s wonderful to have our Iris original,” says fashion illustrator Donald Robertson. “She’s the only woman who can make a 22-year-old fashionista wish they were 90, have white hair and need concept glasses.” Ever the engaging conversationalist, Apfel chats with VIOLET GREY below.
11 QUESTIONS FOR IRIS APFEL
VIOLET GREY: WHAT WAS THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING THE SUBJECT OF A DOCUMENTARY LIKE? DID YOU EVER FEEL LIKE THE CAMERA WAS AN INTRUSION, OR DID YOU ENJOY ITS COMPANY?
IRIS APFEL: It was wonderful, it was painless. I went about my business while they filmed, and I didn’t know if they were going to use the footage or not. Nor did they. Albert [Maysles] never worked with a script or an outline — he just took footage.
VG: WHOSE STYLE DO YOU ADMIRE TODAY?
IA: I can’t say that I do. There are not too many original people around. There were a few people in the old days that I admired greatly, like Pauline de Rothschild and Millicent Rogers, but that seems to have vanished.
VG: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO WOMEN ON ACHIEVING A PERSONAL STYLE?
IA: They have to work at it, they have to experiment, and if you want personal style you can’t copy anyone else or it’s not personal style anymore. It’s trial and error to get to know who you are, how much you can handle, what you can carry, whether people are looking at you, and how much effort you want to spend in learning who you are. And if you don’t want to do all of that and it makes you uncomfortable, I always say that it’s better to be happy than well dressed.
VG: ON AN AVERAGE DAY, HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO PICK OUT AN OUTFIT?
IA: I’m very, very fast; I can’t put a timer on it, but it’s quick. But I haven’t had an average day in my life, and I don’t decide about an outfit. I am not, not, not a fashionista, and I do not spend my life thinking about clothes. I just love clothes; I think they’re fun and wonderful and an adjunct to living.
VG: WHAT DO YOU THINK OF FASHION BLOGGERS AND WEBSITES? DO YOU READ ANY OF THEM?
IA: Technologically, I live in the 17th century — I don’t use a computer. When it comes to the Internet, I’m like Blanche DuBois and I live through the kindness of strangers. If someone sees something interesting, they copy it out and send it to me; otherwise I don’t have a clue what’s going on. I am not a fan of social media. I think it’s a curse and very intrusive — very narcissistic and silly. There are so many more important things to do, I think, but who am I?
[Iris is]the only woman who can make a 22-year-old fashionista wish they were 90, have white hair and need CONCEPT GLASSES.
DONALD ROBERTSON, FASHION ILLUSTRATOR
VG: DO YOU ENJOY THE ATTENTION YOU GET THESE DAYS?
IA: I am a very private person, but it’s nice to be recognized when people do it pleasantly and say “hello.” At my stage in the game it’s usually quite enjoyable.
VG: YOU’VE BEEN MARRIED TO YOUR HUSBAND, CARL, FOR 67 YEARS. WHAT IS THE SECRET TO A LASTING MARRIAGE?
IA: A sense of humor, being able to laugh at yourself and not taking yourself too seriously, and giving one another your own space. I always say my husband has given me all the space I need, except in the closet.
VG: FROM YOUR KATE SPADE CAMPAIGN TO JOAN DIDION IN THE CÉLINE ADS TO HELEN MIRREN AS THE FACE OF L’ORÉAL, OLDER WOMEN APPEAR TO BE HAVING AN ASPIRATIONAL “MOMENT.” IS THIS JUST A PASSING TREND, OR DO YOU THINK IT REPRESENTS A MORE PERMANENT SHIFT IN OUR ATTITUDE TOWARD AGING?
IA: I haven’t seen them in those advertisements; I have been too busy to even turn on the television. But I think it’s a wise idea because the older market has been totally neglected and those are the women who have all the money.
VG: HOW DO YOU DECIDE HOW MANY BANGLES TO WEAR?
IA: I usually grab an arm full and throw them on. Depending on whether they look good, then I make a change. I don’t plan any of these things and I don’t have any rules and regulations.
VG: YOU SPENT DECADES TRAVELING THE WORLD’S MARKETPLACES FOR YOUR TEXTILE COMPANY, OLD WORLD WEAVES. WHAT IS THE KEY TO HAGGLING AND GETTING A GOOD BARGAIN?
IA: Well, you can’t haggle with everybody, but there are many places where you’re expected to haggle. Like in some of the bazaars or in the Middle East or in North Africa, if you gave the man the first price that he asked you, you totally ruined his day. He expects to haggle and he thinks, My God, if I asked for $500 and you were stupid enough to pay $500, I should have asked for $1,000. It’s part of the game, but you have to know who and where, and it takes some practice.
VG: YOU’VE DONE SO MUCH OVER THE COURSE OF YOUR CAREER. IS THERE ANYTHING YOU’VE NEVER TRIED BUT WOULD LIKE TO?
IA: Something probably will come; I’ve never had a business plan. Someone will think of something and if I’m lucky enough, I’ll get the chance to do it.
IRIS BY ALBERT MAYSLES