Most people outside the fashion industry first met Iris Apfel 10 years ago, as the Rara Avis—the rare bird whose 2005 exhibition of clothing and jewelry at the Metropolitan Museum changed the way we look at style for the better. She was 84 years old at the time, a phoenix or a bird of paradise whose gloriously accessorized visage—always the black round glasses, darling—and proclivities towards brilliantly colored patterns and textures paid no mind to the de rigueur. She relied purely on her maximalist instinct, but never dressed in excess. Her fashion was intrinsically an act of creation.
Not just a fashion icon, Apfel is a 93-year-old businessperson, interior designer, textile connoisseur, collector, world traveller, writer, entrepreneur, jewelry designer, fashion model, HSN host, and artist who is about to be known by yet another designation: movie star. Iris, Albert Maysles’s final documentary, opens wide this week, and is a visually sumptuous, heart-swelling look into her day-to-day life—her wry New York wit, her expanses of closets and storage spaces across the city, her vision to piece them all together and, most lovely, her 67-year marriage to Carl Apfel, both her biggest fan and most easygoing style guinea pig.
As Iris shows, Apfel is a master of acquisitions, but not in the habit of just acquiring things: she is a fashion icon because she’s not really that interested in fashion, as it’s defined today. As Iris reiterates both verbally and by example, Apfel’s visual language is predicated upon a hunger for knowledge that has spanned all her 93 years. She is interested in interesting-looking items—sculptures and bracelets; paintings and jackets and teddy bears—because she is curious about how they fit, both together and within the context of history. Apfel is more interested in what an item says about itself, than for its surface aesthetics. It’s in that roundabout way that she became, at 84, what she describes as a “geriatric starlet.”
Through Maysles’s eyes, we see parallels between the Edies of Grey Gardens and the Iris of today: the Beales were hoarders, living in a world of their own fantasy. Apfel appears more organized, deliberate, and happier with her legions of couture and home accoutrements scavenged worldwide, but she is as enamored with fantasy as the Beales were. With both, Maysles was expert at filming a preponderance of collections, showing Apfel’s warehouse of packed-away curios from her travels as artfully as the Beales’ stacks of newspapers.
As an art-school undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, Apfel (then Iris Barrel) developed a fascination with jazz music. Dissatisfied with the lack of reading material available on her favorites, she decided she would write her own paper on the topic, and then just a teen, had the gumption and audacity to create her own press junket; she traveled to Chicago, where Duke Ellington was playing, and impressed his bodyguard enough with her personal style to make it backstage. She befriended Ellington and, as she puts it now, “I don’t remember what I wrote, but it was very wonderful to me.”
Later, she would win a young writing award from Vogue, become a correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily and, after marrying Carl Apfel, started a now-legendary textiles design company called Old World Weavers. Their primary concern, as the documentary illustrates, was replicating the fine quality and patterns of textiles from the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries. They were successful enough that they wound up decorating the White House for several administrations, including under the renowned provenance of Jackie Kennedy. (In the trailer for Iris, Carl starts to spill some gossip, but Iris stops him before he can.)
Iris Apfel spoke with Jezebel from a grand suite on the fifth floor of the Carlyle Hotel on East 76th Street in Manhattan. She sat in a stiff leather chair abutting a slate fireplace, and she wore a cream-colored wool jacket with a large bow at the top, accessorized with several large black bangles and a teacup-dog-sized wooden brooch in the shape of an arrowhead. “I thought it was fun,” she effused. “It was done by a very good Scandinavian designer!” Considerately, she kept offering me bits of her doll-sized breakfast.
IRIS APFEL: Thank you for coming.
JEZEBEL: Thank you for having me, it’s very nice to meet you. I loved the movie so much. I mostly write about music, and you mentioned jazz in the film...
I always felt that what I do is very much like playing jazz, because I improvise so much.
You also mentioned one thing you like about fashion is that in certain cultures, you can tell something specific about a person based on what they’re wearing.
Oh, in the Qing Dynasty, if you could read the symbols [on the clothes they were wearing], you knew all about the person.
Right, that’s it. Have you ever thought about your own context? About what you might project?
I never think about it! I just do whatever I want and let people think whatever they like. It’s their problem! [laughs]
That is excellent. Iris is partially filmed in your home in Palm Beach, which is decorated in Christmas décor, year-round. Why Christmas?
Well, I never did Christmas as a child. [Apfel is Jewish.] And I guess I had lust, or something. I tend to work very hard, I work and work and work, and while I’m doing it I don’t feel it and all of a sudden I stop and I think [makes tired face]. So the doctor said I just had to rest. He told my husband, don’t let her out of the apartment for like, two weeks.
I rested for five days, and I just couldn’t stand it anymore. My husband was going shopping and I said, “Let me go, I’ll sit in the car.” He had to go to exciting places like Costco, and he couldn’t find what he was looking for, so he said, “Let’s try Target.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll go in with you.” He was looking for these exciting things, and I wandered around, and I landed in the Christmas department, and I was mesmerized. I saw a big box and it said on the box, “Artificial Christmas tree, six foot tall, drastically reduced, $13.95.” Well, I’m a sucker for a bargain so I said, god, that’s for me. So then I spent about a half hour trying to find my husband because, you know, it’s a huge store, and he said, “What the hell do you need a Christmas tree for?” [laughs]
Anyway, I said, please, for 13 dollars, you can indulge me. So we bought this Christmas tree, and we took it home, and I gave it to my housekeeper, and she was joyful, she put it together. And then I said, “Oh, the poor little thing looks so naked! We have to get it something to wear!” So the next day, I said “Let’s go.” [My husband] said, you’re supposed to rest! I said, oh, this’ll be fun. So we went to a couple of stores and we bought what I thought was way too much, and I brought it home, and [dressed the tree] and it’s like she gobbled it all up and she still looked half-dressed. I mentioned it to a friend of mine who said, oh, that’s always the way with Christmas, you always think you bought too much and you never got enough.
Iris and Carl Apfel’s wedding announcement in the New York Times, February 23, 1948
So I started [the Christmas theme] that way. From looking around—I have an eye for the peculiar—I found these little dolls that danced or sang, you know, Christmas songs, they were so cute. One day at this market, I found this lunatic who made a set of Christmas trains. The engineer is Santa Claus, you know, he goes “Toot toot! Merry Christmas!” There’s an ice skating rink on the first car, there’s a nice place for a stowaway and periodically he opens the box and looks out. There’s a pizza parlor. I mean, it’s crazy.
So I decided we would set up a little [Christmas-themed] village. Then we had to get all this stuff for the village. And it just grew and grew and grew, and it was really quite spectacular. My friends would say, “Oh, it’s a shame... my grandchildren are coming at the end of the month next month, could you keep it up?”
So now, we keep it up a good part of the year, and it dawned on me that Christmas is really a state of mind. It’s very fascinating, it’s very fun, and I love it. The first time that this particular gentleman friend came over, I had all these little characters dancing and singing and he said, “I know just what to get you next year for Christmas.” And I said, What? and he said, “Batteries.”
Anyway, we used to put everything on a gigantic table and it just about made it. And one night, in the middle of a cocktail party, it just pfft! [Hand gestures to imitate the table collapsing.] The trains jumped up and everything went all over the place. So now I have this beautiful antique rug but I have to take up the space on the floor. And every year it’s different. People began to give me wooden soldiers so I have a collection of that, and my husband loves cars, so we have a collection of cars so we have all kinds of little cars. It’s great fun and I love it. That’s why Bruce Weber said [in the movie] that it’s the most perfect apartment for two children.
I can’t imagine not being happy there!
I also collect stuffed animals, so they’re all over the place and they’re all bedecked and bejeweled because they’re very jealous of me. When I came home from a trip and I didn’t bring them anything, it was bedlam. And when I’m not there, they sometimes fight with each other because—especially the American Indians, you know, they like to tipple, they drink—but I have a huge Kermit, and he’s become a real lush. I have a beautiful, life-sized ostrich, and the wing lifts up and her name is Gussie, and Gussie’s belly is full of booze. So Kermit has made her neck his perch. And he’s crocked most of the time.
You said in the movie that you think of your clothes and jewelry as friends.
Yes, I do. Maybe it’s just because I was an only child—I always had friends, but I just liked my private space. Even as a kid I used to just like to sit and think about things. I think it’s just awful today, people don’t think of all. We have a culture of mental zombies, and the young people think they don’t have to think. Just press a button and they get an answer, and they think they know everything. I never met a generation that’s so vacuous.
So I guess you don’t spend a lot of time on Wikipedia.
Technologically, I live in the 17th Century. I’m just struggling and easily frustrated with one of those goddamn iPhones. I had a nice little clamshell which I loved and everybody poo-pooed it and a month or so ago it fell in a bucket of water. Now I’m doing a project with somebody who said, you really have to get an iPhone, because we have to send each other photographs back and forth. I can’t work the goddamn thing. Particularly now with the movie and all these other projects, I have no time to think about it.
Was it difficult for you as a working woman in an era when there weren’t too many women who worked?
I never found any of it particularly difficult; I just didn’t join in with a lot of what my friends did. First of all, I hate to play cards. I don’t like to sit around and yak. Ladies luncheons are a fate worse than death, as far as I’m concerned. They’re like giant barnyards, everybody’s chattering but no one is ever saying anything. So all of those things, I never missed. They just sometimes thought I was a little difficult because I couldn’t plan weeks and weeks in advance, or sometimes I’d be stuck on a job or be a little bit late. It was never really a problem.
In the film and in other interviews, you’ve talked about how people in fashion have been yearning for individuality. Do you think the timing of the Met show, where you became a public figure, really spoke to a lot of people?
Yes, it touched a nerve, no question about it. People have a deep yearning for individuals but they don’t do anything about it. I find people give lip service to a lot of things, everybody wants to have a style. They think they can copy. It has to come naturally. I think it’s in your DNA. You have to work at it, and you have to know who you are if you wanna be original, and if you’re not original or creative you can’t have your own style. You can be well-dressed, you can look very lovely, but you won’t have style, in my view of style. I think style is attitude. Some of the most stylish people, in my book, don’t have beautiful clothes, it has nothing to do with the kind of clothes. It’s how they carry themselves, it’s the way they think about things. It’s not just about what they wear, it’s how they behave.
Everybody in this culture wants instant everything. And you can’t get it that way. But as I say ad nauseum, if you don’t want to invest the time in yourself of finding out who you are, what you can carry off, or all that kind of thing—or you do and you feel it’s a chore and you’re very uptight about it, even though you look wonderful, it’s much better to be comfortable and to be happy than well dressed. You know, the fashion police aren’t gonna come and take you away, so. Have a good time!
So what has made you happy in your life?
Being creative! When I do something creative and I finish it, I remember the wonderful feeling of maybe, writing an article or something and then taking it to the post office and sending it off and it felt so good. I love the process. It’s the process that I like. A very smart lady once said she had much more fun getting dressed to go to the party than going to the party. I like putting things together. I like finding things. I like learning about the things. I really don’t get dressed up that much, people always want to know how much time I spend in the morning thinking about getting dressed, I mean, it’s ridiculous!
I recently acquired an extravagantly patterned, long silk robe from a thrift shop, and it made me wonder: do you dress up to sleep?
To sleep? Oh god, no! Pajamas, all the time, or a nightgown. I never fancied fancy underwear. I like cotton panties. I don’t like fancy schmancy, la-di-da underwear. I’m very practical! I’m very pragmatic. It’s always been a great problem with me because sometimes I feel stretched to pieces: my head is in the clouds, but my feet are on the ground. It’s very important to keep your feet on the ground. Too many people float around thinking god knows who the hell they are.
How have you kept your feet on the ground?
Well, just do it!
Top image via Magnolia Pictures. Wedding announcement via screenshot, the New York Times’ Times Machine.
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