Tell Us Everything, Iris! Lessons on Life and Style from the Legendary Iris Apfel
That’s what Iris Apfel, with an all-knowing, lipstick-stained smirk, calls herself.
Now 96, she can call herself whatever she damn well pleases, having emerged in the last decade as America’s darling of design, an icon for all ages. You’d recognize her anywhere, with her owlish, oversized glasses (a reflection of her wisdom, perhaps), notoriously colorful ensembles and piles of necklaces and armfuls of bracelets so heavy you think it’d topple her into a somersault.
While a longtime staple in the New York design circles, Iris didn’t become a known name – and just a first name, at that – until 2005. It was then, over a decade into her retirement, when Harold Koda, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, in a pinch after an exhibition suddenly canceled, called Iris.
He’d heard about her wild, extensive personal collection of vintage and designer clothing and accessories, and just months later, Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection, styled by Iris herself, in the wacky and wonderful way she would dress, opened to monstrous word-of-mouth success.
A new fashion star was born, at age 83.
The New York native began her career at Women’s Wear Daily. Later she assisted interior designer Elinor Johnson. But her textile talents really took off alongside her husband Carl Apfel in 1950, when they launched Old World Weavers, a firm specializing in restorational furnishings. Iris traveled the world, scouring flea markets to source fabrics and art. All this lead Iris to the White House, where she served nine presidents, Truman the first and Clinton the last, earning the nicknames “First Lady of Fabric” and “Our Lady of the Cloth.”
“It was a relatively easy job actually,” she says of the White House, “because everything had to be as close as humanly possible to the way it was.”
“Well,” here comes the gossip, “until Mrs. Kennedy came along. She employed a very famous Parisian designer to gussy up the house and make it a real Frenchie, and the design community went bananas. After that we had to throw it all out and start again.”
“But I did like Mrs. Nixon. She was lovely.”
As the Metropolitan Museum of Art put it, “Her originality is typically revealed in her mixing of high and low fashions – Dior haute couture with flea market finds, 19th-century ecclesiastical vestments with Dolce & Gabbana lizard trousers.”
Incredible. Teach us your ways, Iris. We have a lot to learn. Below, Iris’s most memorable, quick-witted thoughts on style, inspiration, aging and more. Are you taking notes?
ON MAKING A HOME
“I think a home should be practical for your needs, beautiful for your soul and someplace to give you enough room to indulge yourself, entertain your friends. A space for your life. Does that make any sense? It better.”
“My home makes me happy because when I come there it’s like being greeted silently by a lot of old friends.”
“When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else.”
“More is more and less is a bore.”
“If your hair is done properly and you’re wearing good shoes, you can get away with anything.”
“[My look is] either very baroque or very zen – everything in between makes me itch.”
“You have to try it. You only have one trip. You’ve got to remember that.”
“I don’t expect to find inspiration. It just sort of comes.
Sometimes you step on a bug and get inspired.”
“I am inspired by everything around me. It’s not like I stand out on the moors or any of that romantic crap they throw around. I’m just inspired by being alive and breathing and meeting people and talking to people and doing things and absorbing what’s happening. I think if more people did that, there would be better fashion.”
“You have to be interested. If you’re not interested, you can’t be interesting.”
ON HER HUSBAND (of 67 years!) CARL
“He was cool, he was cuddly, and he cooked Chinese,
so I couldn’t do any better.”
ON KNOWING YOURSELF
“Fashion you can buy, but style you possess. The key to style is learning who you are, which takes years. There’s no how-to roadmap to style. It’s about self-expression and, above all, attitude.”
“I don’t care what people think. I learned a long time ago. I was 19 and had a very traumatic experience, and I learned that I have to go to bed with myself at night and that I have to please myself. And as long as I don’t go out of my way to offend anybody that I love, upset my mother or my husband, I’ll do my own thing. And if the public doesn’t like it, it’s their problem, not mine.”
“If you don’t know yourself, you’ll never have great style. You’ll never really live.
To me, the worst fashion faux pas is to look in the mirror and not see yourself.”
“You have to push yourself when you’re older, because it’s very easy to fall into the trap. You start to fall apart. You just have to do your best to paste yourself together. I think doing things and being active is very important. When your mind is busy, you don’t hurt so much.”
“I don’t see anything so wrong with a wrinkle.
It’s kind of a badge of courage.”
“You don’t have to look like an old fuddy-duddy, but I believe it was Chanel who said, ‘Nothing makes a woman look so old as trying desperately hard to look young.’ I think you can be attractive at any age. I think trying to look like a spring chicken when you’re not makes you look ridiculous.”
Still can’t get enough? (Me neither.) Give her 2015 documentary, Iris, a viewing and crack open a copy of her new book, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon.
Megan McCarty is a writer, editor, etc.-er who has written about life, travel and – shh, don’t tell her mother – s-e-x for Garance Doré, Apartment 34, Rue and more. She’s a firm believer in the zipper merge. Follow along with her adventures (and, well, misadventures) on Instagram.