Iris Apfel, New York’s icon of street style, was recently in London for the opening of Albert Maysles’s new documentary about her. Portobello’s opulent Electric Cinema – all lush red velvet, chaise longue seats and gratuitous gilding – was the perfect place to see the film but with the added bonus of an appearance from Iris herself. In person she is tiny but radiates energy and vitality. Perhaps unusually, she was quite soberly dressed in black, albeit still wearing a pair of leather trousers, but with a bolt of colour and ethnic vibe from a brightly embroidered tote bag.
Guardian journalist, Hadley Freeman led the live discussion and managed to bring out, as the film does too, Iris’s appetite for life and her curiosity to seek interest and joy wherever she is. While her distinctive style may be the outward demonstration of her personality, it is these qualities that really set her apart, not only as a fashion icon but as an individual comfortable in her own skin and in the knowledge of who she really is. She is eminently quotable and so here are some pointers to the Iris philosophy, in her own, no-nonsense, terms.
“I like individuality….[if] everything is homogenised I hate it”. Iris credits her mother, a fervent accessorizer, and her husband Carl, as the only people who have influenced her wardrobe choices. Her exceptional style seems to have been recognised at an early age with a comment that she would never be pretty but did have great style. If that seems somewhat cruel, she has certainly had the last laugh. The film depicts very well the extraordinarily broad style ‘repertoire’ she commands. There are pictures of Iris in the 60s in psychedelic prints; in store appearances in Manhattan in chic black and white; we see her haggling for ethnic clothes and textiles; and there is even a shot of one of the church vestments from her collection. On her tiny frame, she carries off these varied styles through sheer force of personality married with an artists’ eye for proportion.
“Everything I have I go out and find: its not easy”. She could have added, “…but its so much fun!” because her joy in market browsing and the thrill of the chase for a bargain are apparent, from a childhood experience of haggling for a 65c brooch to globe-trotting the world’s markets. During the Q&A discussion, she admitted that the best things she’s ever bought were either “dirt cheap or violently expensive”, which suggests she draws a double joy from clothes – the thrill of the bargain hunt as well as the heart-stopping moment of desire for the extravagance that cannot be denied. So next time I am undecided over a purchase, I’ll be subjecting it to the “Iris test”.
“[Carl’s] given me lots of space, except where its important: in the closet”. The shots taken in Iris’s home seem to indicate that her wardrobe is co-existent with the living space. Trays of accessories sit on all surfaces and there are racks of clothes in garment bags. It is the polar opposite of minimalist but, as an expression of its owners’ personality, it is spot-on – a baroque-ethnic-disney-christmas fantasy land. Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, turned to Iris when an exhibition he’d been planning fell through at the last minute. The public response to the resulting show of Iris’s wardrobe and accessories, ‘Rare Bird of Fashion’, surprised him as visitors appreciated Iris’s sense of fun and joy expressed through her clothes. The show also produced a long-term relationship with Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum that now houses a growing collection of Iris’s clothes: in her own words, “you don’t own anything, you just rent”.
“Colour can raise the dead”. We’ve all experienced the transformative effect of a zingy shade but this is also a reminder to lighten up in all senses. In the film, photographer Bruce Weber describes Iris’s home as the perfect place for two children, crowded with toys and gadgets and decorated for Christmas for half of the year. Iris herself reckons that her curiosity and sense of humour are the best gifts she has and wryly observes, “if you’re going to do the same damn thing every day, you might as well jump into the box yourself.”
Iris, rainbow goddess of fashion, we love you.