Iris Apfel: a rare bird of fashion

Happy Women’s Day to all you phenomenal women out there! To celebrate, I thought I’d do a post on one of my all-time favorite fashion icons, Iris Apfel.

Whoever said eccentric dressing and growing old should never mix has obviously not heard of Iris Apfel. She has broken all the conventional molds of fashion and beauty, a true inspiration for every woman out there.

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At 93, Iris Apfel continues to turn heads with her bold unconventional fashion sense. She has fashion designers like Isaac Mizrahi and Duro Olowu as fans, and has been featured in topnotch fashion publications like Vogue and the New York Times.

British-Nigerian designer Duro Olowu remarked “Fashion is like a big box of lego to her”.

Iris with fashion maestro Duro Olowu.
Iris with fashion maestro Duro Olowu.

Born in 1921 to an American father and Russian mother, Iris always had a penchant for personal style.

She worked as an interior designer by profession, and set up a company called ‘Old World Weavers’ with her hubby Carl Apfel. They worked on recreating old world upholstery and their unique offering had a loyal customer following including the White House.

The Apfels worked for nine presidents during their tenure in the White House, from Truman to Clinton, and then sold off the company in 1992 after retirement.

Ralph Lauren based a 2006 collection on upholstery fabrics as a tribute to Apfel’s work as a textile designer.

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But what has kept Iris Apfel in the headlines is her show-stopping sense of style.

It all started in 2005 when Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York did an exhibit of her collection and called it ‘Rara Avis (Rare Bird)’. The show was a massive success, and many travel versions of the show continued.

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The exhibits were so other-worldly that many thought Iris had long expired. Iris asked her nephew to tell anyone who thought this that “she’s very much alive and just walking around to save funeral expenses.”

Her sharp wit is evident in her attitude to life and fashion in general. Wearing her signature oversized Harry Potteresque glasses, Iris playfully remarks “the more to see you with”.

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Iris’ approach to style is legendary in her incorporation of high and low, ethnic and vintage with contemporary trends, and an idiosyncratic brand of humor.

As the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith once wrote: “before multiculturalism was a word, Mrs Apfel was wearing it”.

She continues to inspire others to express themselves and enjoy life to the fullest.

Iris believes you don’t have to spend a lot of money to be stylish, it is all in how you put things together. She is living proof that putting an outfit together can be just as artful as painting a portrait.

“There’s a sad lack of glamour in the world today,” Apfel mourns. “And there’s absolutely no fantasy.”

Iris Apfel’s style revolves around her principle that “more is more, and less is a bore.” She has an enviable collection of accessories from the world over, and says “My mother worshipped the alter of accessory, and I got the bug.”

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Mac Cosmetics launched a collection in honor of Apfel. The range is a tribute to her love of bright colours and has quirky shades like Pink Pigeon and Party Parrot.

Iris has also never followed mainstream fashion, but wears what makes her feel good. Like a true New Yorker, Apfel does a great one-liner. One of her best is: “When you don’t dress like everybody else, you don’t have to think like everybody else.”

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When she and her husband were invited to dinners at the White House, Iris donned a woolen outfit she had picked up from the flea market as it was comfortably warm for the setting.

She is as comfortable with a designer brand as she is with high-street labels like Top Shop.

Apfel also abhors people who spend a fortune on designer clothing but have a fear of actually wearing them. She once visited a lady in the Midwest who has about 15,000 pieces and wanted to show Apfel some of her collection. When she took out “this divine Geoffrey Beene dress”, Apfel said: “Oh my God, you must have had so much fun wearing it!” The woman was horrified. She said: “Wear it!? This is part of my collection. You don’t wear your collection!” Apfel said: “In that case I don’t have a collection.”

Apfel has a story to tell about each of her outfits; she insists that hers is not a fashion collection, because she bought every piece to wear. “I’m a hopeless romantic. I buy things because I fall in love with them. I never buy anything just because it’s valuable,” she says. The unifying principle is excess.

“My look is either very baroque or very Zen – everything in between makes me itch.”

On the subject of ageing, Iris remarks “Coco Chanel once said that what makes a woman look old is trying desperately to look young. Why should one be ashamed to be 84? Why do you have to say that you’re 52? Nobody’s going to believe you anyway, so why be such a fool? It’s nice that you got to be so old. It’s a blessing.”

At 93, Apfel is far busier than people half her age. Her spontaneity and insatiable curiosity are undoubtedly the driving forces of her success.

Apfel currently tops my personal list of fashion icons. May we all be an Iris Apfel in our nineties!

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