Looking Back On The Life Of The Late Iris Apfel

Design Doyenne Iris Apfel Has Died at 102

Iris Apfel celebrating her 100th birthday in 2021. Photo: Getty Images

Iris Apfel, the White House textile veteran turned saucer-spectacled centenarian style icon, died on Friday at her home in Palm Beach, Florida. The news was confirmed by Stu Loeser, a spokesman for her estate. She was 102.

“I like big and bold and a lot of pizzazz,” Apfel announced in Iris (2014), the Emmy Award-nominated documentary from the late Albert Maysles. The Grey Gardens director trailed Apfel haggling in Harlem (“I’m cheap. What can you do on the coat? Oh, you can do better than that”) and coveting $2 teddy bears and a studded cap for her doting husband, Carl (who died in 2015, aged 100). We see her lambasting modern designers to photographer Bruce Weber (“They don’t sew, they don’t drape, they’re media freaks”), teaching at the University of Texas, collaborating with MAC Cosmetics, and presenting a CFDA Award to designer Alexander Wang.

An Accidental Icon

A self-declared “accidental icon,” straight-talking Apfel modeled for Vogue in 2018, the same year Mattel made a silver-haired Barbie in her name. In 2019, aged 97, she landed a modelling contract with IMG. “I’m very excited. I never had a proper agent,” she told Women’s Wear Daily at the time. After Iris aired on Netflix, Apfel told Vanity Fair: “I’m so delighted with the response, I can’t get over it. They’re carrying on about me as if I invented penicillin.”

With outlandish outfits, ice blue eyeshadow, and ruby red lips, Apfel’s increasingly familiar face appeared front row at runway shows and glistened from newsstands in bell pepper green suits, raspberry coats, turquoise feather boas, and her trusty walking cane. “I’m a total workaholic, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be a cover girl in my nineties,” she told The Times of London.

“The essence of Apfel’s art, like that of many of the greatest filmmakers, is the art of montage,” The New Yorker noted in 2015. Or, as she would have put it: “More is more and less is a bore.”

In 2005, 13 years after leaving Old World Weavers, the fabric business she founded with Carl in 1950, the Russian-American retiree rolled into her new world as a “geriatric starlet” with more splendor than a Fabergé feast. While restoring fabrics and furniture for the White House under nine presidents, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton (“I was a busy bee”), Apfel rustled up monikers from the “First Lady of Fabric” to “Our Lady of the Cloth,” but it was the way she dressed herself, and not interiors, that finally landed her in the spotlight.

Inspired by Apfel’s ritzy high-low outfits that clashed flea market finds with haute couture (“I like to improvise; I always think I like to do things as though I’m playing jazz”), the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibited 40 pieces from her personal collection in 2005. “Rara Avis: The Irreverent Iris Apfel” opened on September 13, 2005, “and I became hot, cool, whatever you want to call it,” Apfel told The Times in 2019. “I’ve always dressed differently, and nothing about my style had changed from 50 years ago, but suddenly I was a crowd-puller. Magazines wanted to interview me, offers poured in to design fashion, jewelry, accessories.”

Iris and Carl Apfel in 2008. Photo: Getty Images

Greatly adored and adorned

For eight decades Apfel searched souks and department stores alike to gather amber bangles, florid pins, bauble necklaces, boiled wool beads, Tibetan wrist cuffs, and couture. She made her very first purchase at 11. “I fixed on a brooch and thought it was the cat’s pajamas,” she recalls in Iris. Saving up 65 cents, she haggled a little (“It’s part of the game”) and secured her first geegaw. Another time, her mother gave her $25 to buy an outfit for the Easter Parade. “I bought a beautiful silk dress in pale peach, a straw hat, and a pair of pumps, and I still had money left for coffee and lunch,” she told The Guardian.

An only child, Iris Barrel was born on August 29, 1921, in Queens, New York, to a Russian boutique owner mother, Sadye, and American father, Samuel, who came from a family of glass and mirror specialists. “My mother was unbelievable for her time: she was in law school when she became pregnant with me so she had to quit, but she went into the fashion boutique business and taught me so many things,” Apfel told The Guardian.

From visionary to Vogue

“In the ’40s I was probably the first woman to wear jeans,” Apfel told Tavi Gevinson in Iris. “All of a sudden I had a vision. I said wouldn’t it be wonderful if I had a big gingham—this sounds crazy, but a big gingham turban and very large hoop earrings that I could wear with a nice crisp shirt and a pair of jeans.”

Creatively wired, Apfel studied art history at New York University and attended art school at the University of Wisconsin. “I had a fabulous art course, where it was explained to me that nothing exists in a vacuum, that everything is a result of the period in which it’s done—the economics, the sociology, the politics, all sewn together,” she told Vogue in 2014. “That was a very important lesson.” She then worked for Women’s Wear Daily and for the interior designer Elinor Johnson as well as, at one point, assisting fashion illustrator Robert Goodman.

In 1947, she wore a black Norman Norell dress on her first date with Carl. “I still wear the dress that I wore on my first date with my husband and that was 68 years ago. I get a lot of mileage out of my clothes,” she told Vanity Fair in 2015. Interviewed together in Iris, he said: “There was something about her that just got into me; it’s always there.” Apfel responds: “And I figured he was cool, and he was cuddly, and he cooked Chinese, so I couldn’t do any better.”

They married on February 22, 1948, and set up business two years later, after searching for a fabric that didn’t exist. Apfel called a friend’s weaver father to make the design for her, which was so successful the Apfels decided to open Old World Weavers, producing replicas of 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century fabrics. Their clientele ranged from the U.S. State department to Jackie Kennedy and Greta Garbo. The couple never had children, with Apfel reflecting in Iris, “I didn’t want to have my child raised by a nanny, and you can’t do everything—it’s impossible.”

Besides, she called herself “the world’s oldest living teenager” to the end.

“I’m amazed at my life at this stage of the game,” she told The Times in 2019. “It is like living in a fairy tale.”

This article was originally published on Vogue.com

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