When Iris Apfel was a young woman from Queens, New York starting out in the fashion industry, Frieda Loehmann, founder of the famed department store, took her aside. 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.’ ”
Apfel, now 93 and still a dynamo, is the subject of Iris, a new documentary directed by the late, Albert Maysles – who, with brother David, directed such classics as Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens. The astute businesswoman and “rare bird of fashion,” made popular by her trademark old Hollywood, Edith Head-style eyewear and eclectic, albeit eccentric penchant for mixing expensive designer fashions with thrift shop and dollar store finds, first came to prominence in the 1950s as an interior decorator. She and her devoted husband, Carl, who never leaves her side during frequent shopping forays, (he turned 100 during filming and is almost confined to a wheelchair,) founded ‘Old World Weavers’, a luxury fabrics company. The couple travelled the world sourcing exquisite textiles. Their company was hired by nine U.S. presidents for White House restorations and by the rich and famous with residences around the world. In Iris, we see the self-deprecating and humorous Apfel, who has never had cosmetic surgery, quip quick-witted zingers that are endearing and compelling; at photo shoots with iconic celebrity photographer, Bruce Weber, and mingle with Kanye West and fashion’s Who’s Who. In 2005 she curated an exhibition assembled from her wardrobe and hundreds of vintage jewelry pieces, entitled Rara Avis (rare bird) at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Behind the closed doors of her Park Avenue apartment she quietly struggles with the onslaught of aging and her husband’s declining health. A mentor to students at fashion schools, she seems genuinely surprised at her own notoriety.
“Fashion”, she says, “never keeps me up at night.” “Matters of health and things like that do. Things that are really important.”
Although many fashion pundits have said that without Apfel, (she is the new face of designer, Kate Spade,) we would likely not be seeing the rise of the ‘senior’ supermodel – Joni Mitchell, (71) for Yves Saint Laurent, writer, Joan Didion, (80), for Céline, actress, Charlotte Rampling, (69) for Nars and actress, Jessica Lange, (66) for Marc Jacobs Beauty, one hopes that this is not merely a blip on fashion’s notoriously transitory trend scene.
“I feel lucky to be working ,” says Apfel. “If you’re lucky enough to do something you love, everything else follows.”
“I like individuality- it’s so lost these days. Everything is so homogenized.”
“Plastic surgery? Oh my God! Some very important people I know come out looking like a Picasso.”
“If you hang around long enough, everything comes back.”
“Color is so important- black is just a uniform.”
“It’s not a dull marriage, I can tell you that.” Carl Apfel. ( He & Iris have been married 67 years.)
On Friday, May 29th, 2015 VIFF, the Vancouver International Film Festival presents A Night Of Iris. Partnering with ‘My Sister’s Closet’ a community thrift boutique and social enterprise of Battered Women’s Support Services, an eclectic Pop-Up Shop in VIFF’s atrium will pay tribute to the doyenne of fashion followed by a screening of the documentary, Iris, directed by Albert Maysles. Selected screenings continue May 30th to June 11th at VanCity Theatre.
Top photo: A photo shoot with Iris Apfel. Photo: Bruce Weber