Fashion maven Iris Apfel doesn’t have the classic allure of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or the old Hollywood glamour of Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe. She’s not a socialite celebrity like a Kardashian, nor as restrained as Anna Wintour or irreverent as Diana Vreeland. She is the strange bird of the fashion set.
Yet, Apfel, 93, is the subject of IRIS, a new documentary about her life as a decorator, couture collector, and “geriatric starlet” opening at Atlanta’s Midtown Art Cinema on Friday. The film was directed by Albert Maysles, who co-directed such documentaries as Grey Gardens, about Jackie O’s quirky and reclusive aunt and cousin, and those on the Beatles and Rolling Stones, among others. He died of cancer earlier this year.
Queens-bred Apfel is an undeniable icon with Mr. Magoo-style glasses, eccentric clothes, and a plethora of curated accessories that hang from her neck and wrists like African royal regalia. She and her husband, Carl, founded Old World Weavers in the 1950s, creating and sourcing home décor from all over the world. Nine presidents commissioned the company for work. However, her role as a fashion doyenne wasn’t launched until the 2005-06 exhibition “Rara Avis” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, drawn from her robust collection of couture accessories.
Apfel has been the subject of a book, Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel, featured in Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style blog, and has been the inspiration for many advertising campaigns, including those for Bergdorf Goodman, M.A.C. Cosmetics, and Kate Spade. Her late rise to fame has been credited for sparking the interest in the hiring of senior stars as the faces of beauty and fashion brands, for example, Joan Didion for Céline, Jessica Lange for Marc Jacobs Beauty and Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent. This derails the longtime mindset that fashion is pioneered by the youth.
There is no rhyme or reason to Apfel’s collection of kitsch, aside from a love for all things bright, bold, and ornate. In the film, she quips that her mother “worshipped at the altar of accessories” and was always able to revolutionize her look with a mix of unexpected finds. Apfel is uninspired by the status quo – bemoaning things pretty, “boring black,” and homogeny. Apfel says that she met Freida Loehmann in her namesake department store in New York, and that she was pulled aside by the retail mogul, who paid her what she deemed a compliment: “She said, ‘You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. You have something much better. You have style.’ ”
Harold Koda, a curator at the Met says, “Iris is an artist. What she uses her clothes and her accessories to do is compose a new vision.”
“For me, it’s not intellectual,” Apfel admits in the film. “It’s all gut.”
The film follows Apfel around her storage facility on Long Island that houses decades of international hauls, her Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan with a closet stuffed with volumes of designer clothes, and her home in Palm Beach. J. Crew’s Jenna Lyons, media mogul Martha Stewart, designer Naeem Khan, rapper Kanye West – of whom she is a fan – and a host of other fashion archetypes and celebrities appear in the film. Apfel is quick, witty and effervescent. Margaret Russell of Architectural Digest describes Apfel as “the perfect example of the intersection of fashion and interior design and art.”
What’s most surprising about Apfel is that she has never been obsessed with youth or beauty. She would much rather be “interesting.” She’s opposed to cosmetic surgery – “Some very important people came out looking like Picasso.” Nor is she judgmental about others’ fashion choices. “It’s better to be happy than well-dressed,” she said. Apfel, who is deliberately childless, is energized by her work. However, her stardom does not immunize her from a life more ordinary. She continues to worry about her ailing husband, who turned 100 during the filming, and her own mortality. What you will never find her worrying about – then or now – is what to wear.
Jennifer Jefferson is a journalist and a copywriter in Atlanta.