93-year–old IRIS APFEL is a fashion legend. In an era when even Hollywood stars are slaves to stylists and opinionated editors who want all of us to conform, this New York idiosyncratic doyenne is one of the last truly original, most fabulous dressed women around.
Her large crammed Manhattan home is packed full of vintage pieces, designer clothing and treasures that she has picked up in thrift stores. She combines chic with cheap. Everything she wears is big, bold and totally stunning, and always topped off with her signature oversized glasses. Married to her centenarian husband Carl for 66 years she has such an enthusiastic energy and pulse for living, which has now been so beautifully captured in an enchanting new documentary portrait by the late Albert Maysles.
We had THEGAYUSA’s Contributing Editor Roger Walker-Dack put his glad rags on so that he could sit down and talk life and style with this remarkable fashion icon.
RWD: Your mother once told you to buy a simple black dress, as you would always have something to wear. However it looks from the clothes that you actually wear that you simply ignored her, and in fact you say in the movie that “black is not a style, it’s a uniform.”
IA: No, I didn’t disagree with my mother, as that was good basic training she gave me. What my mother meant was that I should have a good architectural piece of clothing that didn’t have any embellishment. One that I could wear to the office in the morning, and then go straight out to a black tie affair at night by simply just changing accessories. My mother worshipped at the altar of the accessory.
RWD: How old were you when your sense of style manifested itself, and when did it evolve into the Iris Apfel look?
IA: As far as I know it always was there. My family told me that when I was a kid of about four or five years old (but I don’t remember) we were spending the summer at a resort. My mother used to take great pleasure in dressing me every night and she would always concoct an outfit. She had a kind of an orange crate, which I would stand on top of as she dressed me. One particular night all of a sudden people came rushing into the room because I was howling and screaming and carrying on like a banshee as if my mother were going at me with an axe. They were desperate to know what happened. It seems that my mother took a hair ribbon and made a big bow out of it and went to put it in my hair. I kept screaming “it doesn’t match, it doesn’t match”, stamping my feet and carrying on. Now all these years later I realise that Mom was so right as I hate matchy matchy, but in those days I was just horrified. (laughs)
RWD: What was the most exciting thing about fashion in those very early days when you were still travelling the globe for your interior design business?
IA: It was so exciting because there was such an enormous amount of creativity. Balenciaga was alive and I had friends in the fashion business who would take me to all the openings in Paris, and it was really so exuberant. Then it was like something new with these bursts of creativity and genius, most of which are all finished now.
RWD: After the success of the exhibition of your clothes and jewellery at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005 you became an octogenarian starlet, and so many more doors were opened to you, what was the favourite one? Being a Visiting Professor perhaps?
IA: Actually I called myself a geriatric starlet. They were all very nice as I like doors a lot. I collect doors too. (laughs)
RWD: Bruce Weber the photographer said that the reason you did this movie was that you thought Albert Maysles was handsome and you had a crush on him! I’m curious to know what the real reason was?
IA: At first I didn’t want to do it and turned it down flat. Then I had a long talk with Linda Fargo (Senior VP at Bergdorf Goodman) and she said that I must be out of my cotton picking head as people would just drop dead to have Albert Maysles even take a still photograph and he wants to do a documentary of you! I really didn’t think anybody would care about a film about me as I wasn’t very well known and I didn’t have anything to sell. However Albert convinced me, and I’m very glad I did it, as it was a wonderful experience he was a really wonderful guy. We shall all miss him so much.
RWD: What do you think of the movie now?
IA: I haven’t actually seen it yet. But if I don’t like it, there is no one to complain to about it now. (laughs)
RWD: You said in the movie that you believe that it is better to be happy than well dressed.
IA: Absolutely. I think fashion is just part of my life and if it hadn’t of been fashion then it would have been something else. I was so worried in the film that I would come across as some empty headed fashionista.
RWD: Well you didn’t.
IA: Thank God for that because they’re so many empty headed people in the fashion business who take themselves way too seriously and I don’t think I am at all like one of them. To me there are lots more important things in the world than just having the right shoes!
I think that if you have to work very hard at dressing up and it makes you nervous or uptight, then you won’t look very well because you won’t be comfortable. I think it’s much better to be comfortable and happy than well dressed, don’t you?
RWD: Absolutely. You value individuality and curiosity so highly
IA: Oh yes…
RWD: Then how would you encourage people nowadays to be just that, when things are so mass marketed?
IA: First you have to know who you are. That is the most important thing, as if you don’t know who you are you will either get swallowed up or you follow some unsuitable trends and just become a nonentity. It’s not easy to know who you are and it’s very painful and takes a lot of time and that is why a lot of people don’t want to put in the effort. However if you don’t have any individuality and you’re happy just being one of the girls (or boys) be my guest. I’m not the fashion police. I won’t fault you.
RWD: One of the most touching aspects of your life in the film is your marriage to your husband Carl who celebrated his 100th birthday this year.
IA: It was sixty-seven years together a couple of weeks ago.
RWD: Wow! Congratulations. What is your secret to having such a happy relationship?
IA: Having a sense of humour and giving one another space: your own space. I’m delighted that gay people now want to get married and I say why not! It’s nobody’s business and I would happily give my blessing.