When shopping at the now closed Loehmann’s, a young Iris Apfel was approached by the owner, Frieda Loehmann. “Young lady, I’ve been watching you,” she told Iris. “You’re not pretty, and you’ll never be pretty. But it doesn’t matter. You have something much better. You have style.”
She was right. Iris has gone on to become an icon in the fashion world. The 93-year-old New Yorker has made a career out of her unique taste – first as a writer for fashion magazine Women’s Wear Daily, then as an interior designer who decorated the White House for nine presidents, next as a muse for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and now as the subject of a documentary about her life, titled Iris. Her ever-present thick-rimmed glasses, stacks of bangles, and swipe of bold lipstick ensure that all eyes are on her, all the time.
Always one to do things her own way, Iris has broken pretty much every fashion rule there is, yet her eccentric taste has only ensured that she remains the ultimate example of personal style. Her love of sifting through market stalls and vintage shops, coupled with her ‘more is more’ approach, marks her out as the ultimate MAGPIE.
Although Iris is a self-proclaimed ‘geriatric starlet’, her fame is relatively new. In 2005, curator Harold Koda found himself without an exhibition lined up for the autumn show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. At a loss, he turned to the relatively unknown Iris Apfel, whom he knew to have a spectacular personal collection of jewellery and clothes. The result? Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection. The show took the fashion world by storm, and flung Iris into the spotlight – something that she still can’t understand: “They photographed me for Vogue and all sorts of stuff. I mean, they carry on with me like I invented penicillin.”
Although she is yet understand to get the hype that’s been built up around her, Iris is a big believer in the power of fashion. Quoted as saying “Fashion really is women’s liberation.”, she was amazed when a fan told her that it was Iris’s fearlessness with fashion that gave her the confidence to dress exactly how she wanted to for the first time in her life – at the age of 70.
Despite the fact that she champions the power of personal style, Iris does not feel many people these days have it. A New York native, she has even become disenchanted with the street style on offer in what is often considered to be the home of eccentric and eclectic dressers. “Downtown,” she says, “they think they’re stylish, but they all wear black. That’s not really style, that’s a uniform.” Should you chose to relocate to the Big Apple, she insists upon two essentials: a chauffeur and a fur-lined raincoat. Extravagant? Maybe for most of us, but not coming from a woman who once claimed that caviar is her drug of choice.
Iris not only advocates originality in terms of her wardrobe, but also when it comes to her face. While she admits ageing gracefully isn’t always the easiest thing – “Getting older ain’t for sissies, I’ll tell you!” – she is totally opposed to the obsession with youth, and the plastic-surgery culture that comes with it. She recalls attending parties in Palm Beach with her husband, Carl, who would look around and say, “Baby, you’re the only one here with your own face.”
She is firm that she would never have anything done: “[Unless] you have a nose like Pinocchio or, God forbid, you’re in an accident or fire or something – 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.”
Iris and Carl have been married since 1948. They met on holiday, when he told a mutual friend that Iris would be very attractive, if only she’d get her nose fixed. Her reply was to tell him where to go. Over their six decades together, they have founded a textile firm, Old World Weavers; decorated the White House for nine different presidents; and traveled the world together. She accounts their long-lasting romance to the fact that “he has given me all the space I need, except in the closet.”
Their shared Upper-East side home is a treasure trove. Jam packed with priceless art, tacky souvenirs, Japanese room screens, and Baroque style furniture, the apartment is a shrine to their life together – everything is a memory, everything has a place, even if it may not look like it. The haphazard decorating style mirrors Iris’ carefree approach towards dressing: “If you put something together and it doesn’t look so good, the fashion police are not going to come and take you away. And if they do, you might have some fun in jail.”
Despite her fame and influence, Iris Apfel is still something of an enigma to most. Samantha Shaw, Director of Global Communications and Fashion Relations at Bumble and bumble, and friend of Iris put it best:
It’s hard to explain all that is Iris, you could fill a novel and still not capture her fully. She is inspiring, wonderful, witty, whimsical, genuine, and to me the ultimate style icon.
Although she has already achieved so much, Iris shows no signs of stopping. “I’m the world’s oldest living teenager,” she shrugs.