How Iris Apfel, almost 100, became a global fashionista in her twilight years

On the cusp of her 100th birthday, Iris Apfel is still inspiring the world, writes Annmarie O'Connor 
How Iris Apfel, almost 100, became a global fashionista in her twilight years

Despite being an established tastemaker in interiors, Iris Apfel's late-in-life fashion story only started in 2005. Picture: Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images

Raise a glass. Fashion’s ‘accidental icon’ Iris Apfel turns 100 in August. And to celebrate? She’s curating a 100-piece eyewear collaboration with optical brand Zenni, inspired by her idiosyncratic look. Oversized glasses, hyperbolic accessories, and couture pieces mixed with flea market finds have come to define the interior designer’s ‘more is more, less is a bore’ aesthetic — a visual marker that launched the New Yorker to international fame at age 84. Grab a pew — this yarn’s a good’un.

An industry veteran with a beginner’s mindset, the soon-to-be centenarian’s global popularity stems from childlike curiosity and healthy disregard for the status quo fostered in her formative years. Her parents, both independent business owners, inspired a love of travel, design and possibilities, which saw her cut her teeth at Women’s Wear Daily and later with interior designer Elinor Johnson, dressing apartments for resale.

As she honed a knack for acquiring unusual artifacts, Apfel gained notoriety (and clients) thanks to her equally unconventional dress sense. She wore jeans before they were deemed acceptable (still does; not to mention her red leather trousers), had garments custom-made from non-Western materials and collated artisanal pieces from off-the-beaten-track shops to wear at New York and Palm Beach high-society parties. Mixing haute couture with bazaar bits and bobs, she approached dressing with joyful irreverence — as it should be. Think chunky resin bracelets (stacked on each arm), a Gripoix brooch, and bazaar beads layered artfully over a cashmere turtleneck — all before noon.

She has this attitude where she doesn't care what others think,” says stylist Natasha Crowley. “She's her own person. I think, above all, you really get a sense of joy within her and the joy she has, putting outfits together. You can't look at what she wears and not feel happy.”

Iris Apfel is the oldest person to ever have Barbie made in her image. Picture: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for American Apparel & Footwear Association
Iris Apfel is the oldest person to ever have Barbie made in her image. Picture: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for American Apparel & Footwear Association

It’s this lust for life and sense of adventure that saw her and her husband Carl travel the world in search of hard-to-find materials, eventually leading them to launch their textile firm, Old World Weavers. Specialising in fabric reproductions from the 17th to early 20th centuries, their expertise was soon sought out by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in assisting White House restoration projects through nine presidential administrations, from 1951 until their retirement in 1992. Not a bad resumé.

So, when The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reaches out to you in retirement (age 84, remember?) to curate an exhibition about your style, the word legacy comes to mind. For Apfel, debut is probably more appropriate.

Entitled Rara Avis (Rare Bird), the 2005 exhibition was the first fashion installation of its kind on a living person that was not a designer. Having come about due to a last-minute cancellation and with little time for promotion; the show was a surprise hit. The secret sauce? Apfel was invited to dress the mannequins as they were originally worn and styled — 82 ensembles and 300 plus accessories from more than 50 years of travel. Word spread and a self-proclaimed ‘geriatric starlet’ was born. Or should we say ‘reborn’?

Despite being an established tastemaker in interiors, her late-in-life fashion story was only getting started. Since Rara Avis, she’s authored a book, been the subject of a 2014 documentary and held a visiting professorship at the University of Texas. She launched Home Shopping Network accessory (2011), shoe (2012) and clothing lines (2017), a 40-piece collection with department store Macy’s (2016) and a pop-up store at the legendary Bergdorf Goodman (2018). 

Her brand collaborations are equally eclectic with partnerships including Glossier, Etsy, and eBay. She’s the oldest person to ever have Barbie made in her image. She’s even been the face of Magnum ice cream.

On the encouragement of designer Tommy Hilfiger, she also briefly signed with a model agent at age 97. All of this in the past 15 years. If that’s not a bucket list, I’d like to know what is.


                            Iris Apfel 
                            gained notoriety (and clients) thanks to her unconventional dress sense
                            . Picture: Lars Niki/Getty Images for HSN
Iris Apfel  gained notoriety (and clients) thanks to her unconventional dress sense . Picture: Lars Niki/Getty Images for HSN

It’s this ageless appetite for newness mixed with New York chutzpah and wide-eyed wonder that makes her so compelling. Just ask illustrator Jill Deering and printmaker Gillian Henderson who launched their eponymous brand Jill&Gill (jillandgill.com) with a fine art exhibition dedicated to the woman herself. This collection of 25 uniquely hand-printed pieces was a sold-out show in the Fumbally Exchange and part reason for the duo to re-illustrate Iris and launch her as part of their wearable Boss Lady Collection of sweaters and t-shirts. Why? “She’s that larger-than-life character who appeals to all generations because of her outlook,” says Jill.

Maybe that’s why she calls herself ‘the oldest-looking teenager’? Whether clad in a Big Bird feather jacket with Navajo beads and smoking slippers or ecclesiastical vestments and Tibetan bangles, an ineffable signature prevails — the ebullience of a little girl playing dress-up combined with the expert eye of someone who knows what they can and can’t execute. And, truthfully, there isn’t anything she can’t get away with. As Crowley notes, “She manages to pull off wearing a huge number of accessories, but it never looks too much. It all just works in such a cohesive way.”

In the world of online likes and clickbait validation, it’s refreshing to find a dyed-in-the-wool style vanguard. Not caring what anyone thinks is a more radical act than it appears. It involves whole-hearted self-acceptance and a damn good sense of humour. In the starlet’s own words, “If you put something together and it doesn’t look so good, the fashion police are not going to come a take you away. And if they do, you might have some fun in jail.”

Iris; she’s some flower.

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