The Fabulous Life of Iris Apfel: A Fashion Icon’s Late-in-Life Fame
“Mamma mia,” Iris Apfel exclaims as she settles into a chair at Le Cirque in New York.
She’s running late from a doctor’s appointment to fix a neck problem that has been bothering her.
“It’s made me like a zombie. I’ve been walking around like ‘ahh’” she puts her arms out and makes a face, turning herself into perhaps the most stylish zombie ever to theoretically roam the earth.
The 93-year-old is everywhere these days. Her shock of white hair, iconic oversized round black glasses, and “more is more” approach to layering big, bold, statement jewelry make her instantly—and internationally—recognizable.
Among her countless ongoing projects are an HSN jewelry line, a modeling gig as the face of Kate Spade’s spring campaign (alongside supermodel Karlie Kloss), and a book of “musings” she recently started writing.
She’s also the subject of a new documentary, Iris, by the late, great director Albert Maysles, which opens April 29.
While the “geriatric starlet,” as she calls herself, may be advanced in years, her fame is quite young. In 2005, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a sudden and unexpected hole to fill for its fall show.
Curator Harold Koda asked the relatively unknown fashion maven if she would contribute pieces from her incredible collection of jewelry and clothing acquired throughout her life. The resulting show, Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection, was a spectacular success.
“Life is grey and dull. You may as well have a little fun when you dress and amuse people,” Iris is seen telling an enthralled crowd of museum goers who stand surrounded by her outrageous and enchanting stylings.
Previously, Apfel had enjoyed a modest amount of renown in the design world. She was a long-time interior designer, and, with her beloved husband Carl, had founded a textile company, Old World Weavers.
They even collaborated on White House restorations. Her favorite administration to work with: the Nixons. “Mrs. Nixon, strangely enough, was the most interested of all the ladies. She was passionately interested. Most of them didn’t give a damn.”
But the Met show changed everything, shooting her into the super-star stratosphere.
“Oh it’s very surprising to me. I can’t get over it, I still don’t believe it,” Apfel tells The Daily Beast of her new-found fame. “I went to Brazil last year, and all these kids were jumping all over me at the airport. I couldn’t believe it. And they photographed me for Vogue and all kinds of stuff. I mean they carry on with me like I invented Penicillin.”
Apfel may not have invented a life-saving drug, but her playful, fun, and wholly original attitude towards life, not to mention her sense of style, is a breath of fresh air sorely needed in the world of all-pervasive yoga pants and plastic surgery.
“You have to work at [developing style], find out who you are and what you can handle, whether you get upset if people look at you, whether you like a lot of stuff, whether you’re comfortable being a minimalist,” Apfel says. “Copying someone else’s style is not being stylish. Style implies attitude, mostly, and originality. And if you don’t have those two, well, you’re done.”
Her early style inspiration was her mother, who “worshipped at the altar of accessory” and dressed more like “the Duchess of Windsor. She was very proper. Everything was just so.”
Apfel took this inspiration in a more innovative, even rebellious direction, a move her mother supported. She has an eye for assembling outfits that would be unimaginable to most of us, and is often decked out in layers upon layers of necklaces and armfuls of bangles and bracelets.
She dresses for herself, and it’s obvious how much fun she has doing it. In Iris, she chuckles at the camera as she displays “another mad outfit.”
Growing up in Astoria, Apfel says she used to cut class every Thursday afternoon when she was 11. “In those days for a nickel, five cents, you could go all over Manhattan, and I was a very curious child. So I used to each week go to another area.”
She particularly fell in love with Greenwich Village, where she found a little shop in the basement of an “old rat-trap building” that was run by “a little old man who was very elegant, very down on his luck. He had frayed cuffs, but he always wore spats and a boutonniere, and he had a monocle. He was very elegant.”
There, she set her sights on a brooch that had a high gallery with filigree and rose-cut diamonds.
“I lusted after this pin but I didn’t have a penny to my name. So I saved and I scrimped and sometime later I went back. It was the first time in my life I ever haggled. And finally—he was going to give it to me anyway—he gave it to me for the huge sum of 65 cents. I still have it. I don’t wear it, but I still have it.”
Her unparalleled haggling skills (seriously, viewers will be overwhelmed with admiration and a little fear watching her work her magic in shops and markets around New York City) and her collection of baubles and clothing grew from there.
Today, “the obsession,” as she calls it, fills entire rooms and two-story closets in her Park Avenue and Palm Beach apartments.
While her collection may consume a lot of space, Apfel never takes fashion too seriously and isn’t a snob about what she likes. She is just as happy buying a $4 cuff she’s fallen in love with as a designer piece with a wallet-breaking price tag.
She claims to “mostly” know where and what everything is, and her instant, detailed recall of pieces fished off packed clothing racks seemingly at random in Iris is truly astounding. But the filming process also helped her discover—and wear—gems she had forgotten she had.
“When they came to do the show and they were going through everything, there were things in the closet seriously for 30 years with a ticket on it that I’d never put on my back.”
Despite its museum-quality breadth (she’s in the process of donating part of her collection to the Peabody Essex Museum), Apfel claims, “I’m not a fashionista. I don’t live to get dressed. I think it’s fun and I like it. I like to see other people do it. But I’m very busy with a lot of other things.”
This is all-too-evident in Iris, which shows just how crazy Apfel’s life has become (“the telephone calls are enough to kill you” she tells me).
The nonagenarian star has embraced new projects and opportunities—like sitting for an “insane” Dazed & Confused cover shoot—that have followed on the heels of fame with an enthusiasm and sheer enjoyment that shows just how young at heart she really is.
And if you had any doubts, one look inside her Palm Beach apartment will leave your jaw on the floor.
Apfel and her 101-year-old husband Carl (who calls their relationship “one trip, beautiful trip”) have created a tchotchke and stuffed animal-filled wonderland of an apartment that photographer Bruce Weber observes is “the perfect house for two children.”
“That’s Gussy. Gussy is a bore. Her wing goes up and her belly is full of booze,” Apfel says of a life-size ostrich-cum-bar as she shows the Iris camera crew around. “And Kermit decided he’d like to live here and he’s become a terrible lush. See how tipsy he is?”
A green Kermit the Frog stuffed animal is perched on Gussy, arms lolling around the ostrich’s neck.
Even her inanimate friends aren’t immune to her love of accessorizing. “He loves jewelry and I couldn’t get anything to fit him, he has such a fat neck,” Apfel says petting a large dog figurine with bedazzled collars around his neck. “I told him if he went on a diet…Finally I was in the hat shop and these are hat bands. So, I said, ‘Gee, that’ll fit that fatso.’”
Apfel’s playfulness and endless curiosity are infectious when you’re in her presence. Her eyes still light up when talking about flea markets she wants to check out and exciting new projects that she just “fall[s] into.” Fame doesn’t seem to have changed her.
“What do you do with chewing gum if you want to be elegant?” she asks at one point during lunch. “Years ago in school they used to put them under the desk.” (“Not at Le Cirque, Iris!” the film’s PR representative, exclaimed in response, helping her out of the bind with a sugar packet.)
Apfel is a true original when it comes to her sense of style, and that extends to her emphatic championship of aging gracefully.
She is opposed to the “insane obsession with youth in this country” and is solidly—and hilariously—against plastic surgery. Unless “you have a nose like Pinocchio or, God forbid, you’re in an accident or fire or something,” she thinks the aesthetic risks are just not worth it. “You pay all this money, you go through all this pain, and you don’t know what you’re going to look like when you get finished. You could come out looking like a Picasso painting.”
“We used to go to parties in Palm Beach and my husband would look around and say, ‘Baby, you’re the only one here with your own face,’” Apfel says.
Iris will only make that face more recognizable. One of Albert Maysles’ last projects before his death this past March, the documentary almost didn’t happen.
Apfel originally turned down Maysles request, but luckily Linda Fargo, Senior Vice President at Bergdorf Goodman, convinced her to change her mind.
“Linda said, ‘You must be insane. People would drop dead to just have Albert take a still photograph, and he wants to do a documentary and you have the nerve to tell him no? What’s wrong with you?’ Fortunately he called again, and I went up to Harlem, and we all fell in love.”
And, boy, should we be grateful that she did. Apfel is a hilarious and brilliant reminder that being true to oneself is the only way to live, and that it’s never too late to say “yes” to new opportunities, as long as you’re having fun.
As she so succinctly puts it to the camera, “If you’re going to sit there and do the same damn thing all the time, you might as well jump into the box yourself.”