In Conversation with Iris Apfel

Long a front-row fixture at fashion shows, the design doyenne lands a starring role in a new documentary by the late Albert Maysles.

Iris Apfel is a woman of many hats—literally and figuratively—though she’s seemingly keener on oversized eyewear, necklaces, and bangles, stacked in jangling multiples. Marked by bright palettes, an improvised mix of any and all style periods and juxtapositions of high and low, Apfel’s distinctive style was the subject of “Rara Avis,” a celebrated 2005 exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Costume Institute. The landmark show attracted more than 150,000 visitors, and went on to travel to several other museums nationally. Known simply by her first name, the prolific, self-described “geriatric starlet” has since emerged as a poster child for advanced style.     As a longtime interiors and textile designer, however, Apfel’s forays into design are hardly new, and colorful variations carry on to both her social and professional lives: She counts Kanye West, Jenna Lyons, Dries Van Noten, and Architectural Digest editor-in-chief Margaret Russell among her devotees, and U.S. presidents Truman, Nixon, Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton among her former client base. The charm of Apfel’s enthusiastic and candid personality has kept her and her work in the limelight for more than six decades—and her popularity only seems to be growing. In the past two years alone, the erstwhile cover girl has been featured in campaigns for beauty and fashion brands such as MAC Cosmetics, & Other Stories, Kate Spade, and Alexis Bittar, the latter two for which she appeared alongside supermodel Karlie Kloss and wunderkind Tavi Gevinson, respectively. She has also appeared in editorials in Dazed & Confused, Vogue, Paper, and Harper’s Bazaar. The enterprising nonagenarian also designs a line of accessories sold exclusively via the Home Shopping Network, and keeps an epic collection of objets, furniture, and keepsakes culled from years of international travel with her husband and business partner, Carl, with whom she founded and ran the textile firm Old World Weavers from 1950 to 1992. At age 93, the style maven, entrepreneur, and larger-than-life pop culture icon shows no signs of stopping: Currently, Apfel is writing a book and styling window displays for New York’s Bergdorf Goodman department store—the vitrines will be “Iris-themed” for two weeks this month—and she’s the subject of Iris, the final documentary to be filmed by the late director Albert Maysles, who passed away this March. Surface took a few minutes from Apfel’s whirlwind schedule to discuss her approach to design and fashion, how she collects, and what it’s like to be the star of a feature-length film, currently in theaters throughout the U.S.

How does it feel to be the subject of a documentary by Albert Maysles, and what was your reaction when you first viewed it?

It feels very good. It has been very well received, and I’m very grateful—Al was a joy to work with. I’m very, very excited and amazed at the great response we’re getting.

There are a few fourth wall–breaking cameos by Maysles in the film, which are poignant in retrospect. Had you already been well-acquainted with each other when the project began?
No, no, I had never met him. I met him as we started, and we just hit it off. Then we went straight into it. We had great rapport. It was very nice. We had a few social events together, but by and large, it was a working relationship.

He’s captured some really great moments on your approach to fashion and design. Listening to you appraise style over beauty was particularly interesting.
Well, I didn’t say I prefer style over beauty. I prefer … Well, I like style. I think style is very important. I like style because if it’s real style, it’s original, creative, and something that comes from within. It’s nothing that God gave you—though I guess God gave you the ability to do it. But I don’t think getting by on being beautiful is such a wise thing to do because beauty fades and style continues.

Many people admire you for the fearlessness and originality of your style—you’re the original “geriatric starlet,” though it seems there are more surfacing these days, with recent campaigns: Joan Didion for Céline and Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent.
It’s about time. There’s a huge, untapped market of women of a certain age that nobody in the fashion business pays any attention to, and they’re the ones who have all the money, so it’s kind of dopey. Putting them there is a no-brainer; I think it’s a wise thing to do.

Where do you look for fresh ideas, whether it’s decorating a room or putting together an ensemble to wear?
It depends on what has to be done and how I feel. The same principles apply with me for both areas. I like them both.
I don’t really have favorite places, because the things that I find, I just find, and in the most unlikely places. I don’t do much shopping anymore—some of my favorite little hoards are kaput. They’re finished; the people are either out of business or have gone on to their last reward. So I don’t do too much shopping. You just keep your eyes open, you never know what you’re going to find, ever.

In the film, you mention your mother played an early influence in your love for jewelry and accessories. Were there other early influences that helped cultivate or inform your personal taste?
I didn’t copy my mother’s style. I was completely different! She just planted a seed. And these are things that you have to do on your own. I did it mostly myself—there weren’t that many people informing me. As I grew up a little bit, I admired Pauline de Rothschild, and I admired Polly Mellen. I thought they were pretty amazing. Most people, I found, were perhaps very well-dressed, but I didn’t find them original. And some of the people who were very original were a little bit crazy. I think people have to be appropriate and wear the proper things to the proper places.

Your career has been consistently diverse: You’ve worked across multiple fields of design—interiors, fashion, jewelry, and collecting—and have become an increasingly public figure along the way. How has one field bridged or led to another?
It’s all part of the same thing. Good design is good design; it’s just translating it to another form. I don’t find any problem with it.

One of your first jobs was a stint at Women’s Wear Daily. What was it like to work there?
It was pretty awful. It was back in the—I guess it was the late ’30s or early ’40s, when there were no electronics. I had the lowliest job possible: I was a copy girl, and that meant I had to run around the building passing papers from one desk to another. There were no electronic means of transporting information. I got the magnificent sum of $15 a week, and I didn’t have to go to the gym, so I saved on that, because I was always running up and down. I decided after a little while to leave because, being very bright, I could figure out that most of the editors were women, and they were all noticeably middle-aged: too old to take leaves of pregnancy and too young to die. I figured I’d never get a crack at their jobs, so I went on to greener pastures.

Were you still interested in fashion at that point, or did it cause you to become a bit jaded?
Back then I wasn’t jaded—I was just beginning!

So fashion has been a lifelong interest?
I’ve always been interested in fashion. It’s not a life’s journey. I’m not a fashionista, but I like it, I think it’s a creative project, and I wish people would take more advantage of it because they can play around with dressing up. It can involve a sense of play—a sense of joy—if you want it to. Some people make it an agony.

It’s interesting that you don’t consider yourself a fashionista. You’re often seated at the front row at fashion shows, and you’re in numerous campaigns, for brands including Kate Spade (alongside supermodel Karlie Kloss) and Alexis Bittar (alongside Tavi Gevinson).
But that doesn’t make me a fashionista. I mean, they chose me, but I’m interested in a lot more things than fashion. I don’t live to get dressed.

You and your husband Carl traveled extensively, especially for Old World Weavers, the textile business you ran together for a number of years. How do you think globalization has changed the industry in recent years?
Oh, I think travel now is an agony. Years ago, we went back and forth on a great ship and you traveled like an animal. We loved every place: the Middle East and North Africa, and Italy. I loved the markets and the souks and all that. When I first started, each and every place was so different. Now the world has become homogenized, so it’s not as exciting.

All Stories