Iris Apfel calls herself a “geriatric starlet”. It’s an apt way of describing someone who found fame as a style icon at the grand old age of 83.
“Nothing I ever did I expected to do,” says Iris, who is as surprised as anyone else about becoming a fashion guru rather late in life. “It just kind of happened. I never made any plans for any of these things. I’ve turned into a 94-year-old cover girl, which ain’t easy.”
Now the subject of a documentary film called Iris, the flamboyant New Yorker is known for her Mr Magoo glasses and her clothing – which often combines couture pieces with flea market finds, and is usually accessorised with chunky bracelets and necklaces. She also has a habit of telling it like it is.
Here’s her opinion on designers refusing to make dresses that are appropriate for the older women who can afford to pay the exorbitant prices they charge – “I think when you are paying $15,000 for a dress, you’re entitled to a pair of sleeves. Because everyone knows that for older women, no matter how much of a jock you are, you look like a horse’s a**e in a strappy dress. And that is not appropriate.”
Don’t get her started on the age of models in the fashion industry today. “And why do they use these models who look 15? How can an older woman relate to a little kid running up and down the runway?”
Although she’s now recognised for her fashion style (once described as a peacock crossed with an owl), for most of her working life Iris was an interior designer and textiles importer. After studying art and art history at university, she initially worked for an interior designer and was an assistant to an illustrator, although she was a copy editor on Women’s Wear Daily magazine for a short while.
Iris married Carl – who sadly died, aged 100, last month, shortly after the film came out in the US – in 1948. Two years later, the couple launched a textile firm, Old World Weavers, which sourced fabrics for various design projects. From 1950 to 1993, Iris and Carl helped to redecorate the White House every time a new president took office. They lasted through nine administrations, retiring after working with Bill Clinton.
Iris had been retired for more than 10 years when she got a call in 2005 from a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, who’d heard about her extensive collection of vintage and designer clothes and accessories. An exhibition had fallen through at the last minute and desperate for a replacement, the curator asked Iris if they could display her fashion treasures. The exhibition featured garments styled by Iris and, thanks to word of mouth, was a huge success.
She now consults and lectures about style, has her own MAC make-up collection and models for several designers, including Kate Spade and Karen Walker Eyewear. Iris is a visiting professor at the University of Texas, where she educates students on all aspects of the fashion industry. She never had children, preferring instead to focus on her career, yet her homes in New York and Palm Beach, Florida, are full of children’s toys. “I think there’s a difference between being childish and keeping a quality that is childlike.”
While Iris still wears clothes she’s had for many years, including the dress she wore on her first date with Carl back in 1947, which still fits, she says there are some concessions women have to make as they get older. For example, she will often choose clothes and accessories that conceal her “turkey neck”.
Seeing herself on screen in the movie was a little overwhelming, Iris says, and she’s still getting used to the “lunacy” it has generated. Memorable scenes from the film include an encounter with Kanye West at a New York Fashion Week event. She made the rapper blush when she told him he was a “handsome fella”.
She’s still taken aback by all the fuss she generates and can’t believe it when people “say I’m cool or I’m hot or whatever, and I’m not doing anything differently than I did a long time ago”.
One of the most flattering things that has happened since Iris’ career rejuvenation 11 years ago was hearing that a staff member at an accessories firm she does some modelling for has a tattoo of Iris on her wrist. “I almost fell out of my chair when somebody called to tell me about it,” she says.