The socialite Iris Apfel has always dressed on the eccentric side of showy. Now that she's 90, isn't she tempted to tone it down just a little?
She may be 90 but Iris Apfel is busier than most people a quarter of her age. 'I'm a geriatric starlet,' says the woman whose exuberant outfits and flying-saucer glasses have turned her into a style icon, with major art galleries frequently given over to shows of her clothes.
It takes six months of negotiations just to organise a meeting with her. 'I keep saying I'll get less busy, but I'm crazy,' she says in one of our countless phone conversations.
'I just do too many things. Let me look at my diary - I have a Japanese magazine coming this week, then Martha Stewart wants me on her show next week.
Then I have trips to Texas and Boston - I can't p next month.'
When we finally seem to have a firm date and I arrive in New York she
makes me ring her at two-hour intervals throughout the day, pushing the
time later and later. Finally, at 6pm, she says that she cannot meet me
'because the weather is so disgusting'.
This argument is somewhat illogical as she has no plans to leave her
apartment anyway, and fortunately she relents when I tell her I am not
going to be back in New York for a while.
When Apfel opens the door to her apartment in a beautiful Park Avenue
building she is wearing an unremarkable outfit of jeans and a grey
sweater: 'The jeans are from - what's that cheap store? Old Navy - but
the sweater is cashmere.'
The clothes serve as little more than a palette for her extraordinary
jewellery - this week yoox.com launches its Iris Apfel collection of
jewellery; some inspired and designed by Apfel, some from her personal
Today she is wearing a big-beaded Afghan crimson and silver necklace and
huge hand-painted wooden lacquered square bracelets that look so heavy I
wonder how she can lift her arms. 'Understated jewellery is not for me.
It's too itsy-bitsy.
My husband is lucky as I've never had a yen for
She leads the way through the apartment, which is like a museum stuffed
with beautiful old Venetian chairs and paintings, including a possible
Velázquez ('I don't want to find out if it's really a Velázquez because
then I'll just be nervous about it').
But mixed with the English needlepoint and the imposing chandelier from
Naples are elements of kitsch such as a turquoise stuffed parrot and a
bowl of fake fruit. 'I mix everything up.
A museum curator once said to
me that there is a great jazz component to the way I do things because
good jazz is improvisation and draws elements from all different
cultures. And that's the way I do everything - the way I dress and
Although she is hailed as one of the hippest women, with a sense of
style to which many younger celebrities aspire, in many ways Apfel harks
back to a lost era. 'I live in the Dark Ages, the 17th century.
Actually, I would have loved to be in Paris in the early 20th century
when the Ballets Russes were there and Chanel was designing.'
Yet when people ask her for style tips she is flummoxed. Lindsay Lohan
once asked Apfel to be her fashion guru - Apfel declined. 'I can't tell
people how to have style. No amount of money can buy you style. It's
'You can't try to be somebody you're not; that's not style. If someone
says, "Buy this, you'll be stylish," you won't be stylish because you
won't be you. You have to learn who you are first and that's painful.'
When I ask her if she has learnt who she is, she answers enigmatically.
'I don't try to intellectualise about it because it tightens you up. I
think you have to be loose as a goose.'
Apfel misses the New York of the 1950s. 'It was fabulous then, everyone
looked beautiful,' she says in her low drawling voice that sounds like
it comes out of a 1950s Hollywood film.
'Now when I walk down Fifth Avenue in the summertime I just want to
throw up. It seems that the fatter and uglier people are, the fewer
clothes they wear. The shorts and flip-flops and tight jeans on butts
that go from here to Poughkeepsie.'
She shudders. 'I always say they should put people in jail for wearing
clothes like that. Especially stretch jeans over size 10 [a UK size 14] -
they should be outlawed. Ten years ago people were starting to look
like slobs in New York, now it's an epidemic.'
If this is what she thinks of people in New York, I wonder what opinion
she has of street fashion in London. 'I haven't been in London for some
years but the last time I was there they looked fuddy-duddy and
school-marmish, yes, but not slobby. And then there are the wonderful
eccentrics like the kids on Carnaby Street or the punks or whatever the
heck they are.' Nevertheless, her heart is in New York City. 'I love London and Paris;
they're very sophisticated, but not like New York. If you can't find it
in New York, it doesn't exist.'
Born Iris Barrel, she grew up in Queens. She was an only child, her
father a decorator and her mother the owner of a fashion boutique. 'My
mother was quite a clothes-horse and she loved to dress me up so I
became rather enamoured of clothes.'
She describes an occasion when her mother arranged for her to have a
formal portrait taken. 'I had all these romantic ideas but the truth is I
looked like a piece of clay that had to be sculpted.'
Her father was a maverick. 'He didn't care what anyone thought and he
didn't care about clothes. My mother would have to drag him into a shop.
He'd put one leg in a suit and say, "I'll take it."
'She'd get crazy and say, "You don't even know if it fits." He'd say,
"Oh, it will be all right, let's go." I sometimes do the same. If I see
something that I like and the price is good and the fabric is beautiful I
say, "Oh, well, if it doesn't fit I can make pillows out of it."'
As a teenager, says Apfel, she was fat. 'I was very unhappy so I ate and
ate and ate and no clothes would fit me. My mother used to tear her
hair out when she took me shopping. I used to die because my mother had a
gorgeous figure and the salesgirl would always say to me, "Why don't
you be slim like your mother?"'
She started smoking, which helped her lose weight. 'I used to smoke like
a fiend. I smoked four packs a day. I never do anything half-arsed,
shall we say, but I stopped because I felt I was getting to be an
addict. I've got very good willpower.'
She became friends with Duke Ellington, whom she first met when she was
writing a paper on jazz. Hearing he was in town, she went to see him. 'I
got all dressed up; I think I had more nerve than brains. I went
backstage and knocked on the door and Ray Nance [Ellington's trumpeter]
came out and said, "Lordy, lordy, who's your tailor?"
'I explained my mission and he said he was sure the Duke would see me.
The Duke couldn't have been nicer and said he'd introduce me to all the
greats in Chicago. My mother was very dubious, so I told her, "He's the
most elegant gentleman." She said, "I don't give a damn how elegant he
is, you're not going to Chicago." But I did.'
Her first job was as a copywriter for Women's Wear Daily. 'I was a copy
girl and I made the magnificent sum of $15 a week. Eventually I worked
out that I would never get anywhere there. All the women who worked
there were middle-aged and I said to myself, "They're too old to have
babies and go on maternity leave and too young to die, so you'd better
get your butt out of here."'
So she quit and started work for the illustrator Bob Goodman. 'He paid
me $35 a week, which was more than all the different boys I went out
Iris played the field until she met Carl Apfel at a resort on Lake
George in upstate New York. 'He told my friend that he thought I was
very attractive if only I would go and have my nose fixed. So I said,
"You can tell him to go fly a kite."
'Anyway, some weeks later I came home from work and the phone was
ringing off the hook. He said, "That was a stunning outfit you were
wearing today and I particularly loved your hat" - he had been on a bus
on Fifth Avenue and had seen me on the sidewalk.
'Anyway, I was very busy and the first date I could give him was about
six weeks later on Columbus Day.' After that, things moved quickly.
'Thanksgiving he proposed, Christmas I got my ring, Washington's
birthday we married and our honeymoon was over on St Patrick's Day.'
I ask what it was about him that made him different from her other
boyfriends. 'He was very easy and very funny and we just hit it off.
First of all he ordered my dinner. I have so many decisions to make all
day long that I really don't want to decide what I have to eat, too. So
it was perfect.' Together they launched a textile firm, Old World Weavers, which designed
fabrics for the White House and clients such as Estée Lauder, and Iris
became a fixture on the New York social scene, often photographed in the
style section of the New York Times.
Her outrageous outfits and huge glasses made her instantly recognisable.
'When I needed to wear glasses, I decided I'd wear glasses. All the
better to see you with.'
She and Carl ran their company until they retired in 1992.
Then in 2005
Harold Koda, the curator of the Costume Institute in New York, asked if
she would agree to an exhibition of her jewellery and accessories.
'It didn't start out as a fashion show,' says Apfel, 'but he decided
that to show accessories out of context didn't make much sense so he
asked if I could spare maybe five outfits… I said yes, so they went
through all my closets, all the drawers, all the boxes, all the
armoires, under the bed, everywhere and they go woowoowoooo [she flaps
her arms up and down]. Finally they ended up with 82 outfits. It was
insanity but the show was such a big smash.'
The exhibition transformed her from a quirky eccentric into a fashion
paragon. Since then versions of the show have appeared at museums around
America and Apfel's life has changed utterly:
'I've always been well known ossibly arrange anything at the moment, call me backin my field but since the first show it's gotten insane. I'm very grateful at my stage of the game to have all this happen. It makes me laugh and laugh; it's ridiculous, because underneath I'm the same person I've always been.'
Certainly she remains as outspoken as ever: 'Most of the young people today look dreadful. And celebrities look even worse. They don't know what to do with themselves.
'At the Golden Globes and Oscars they all look alike - it seems like they're all wearing the same nightgown and this year nobody had any jewellery at all. Only Helen Mirren was wearing a beautiful necklace, but even she got it wrong because the necklace just ruined the dress. I think the designer must have wanted to kill himself when he saw her.'
I ask if she is ever tempted to say something to someone who she thinks looks dreadful. 'Oh, now that would be horrible. It's a free country - if you want to look like a freak, that's your problem.'
I thoroughly enjoyed this interview, though a few did not. I'm quite sure that it has much to do with her comments on America's "state of dress." In the comments that followed, the words obnoxious and parasite (?) were bandied about. I say: hey, the woman in 90 years old and grew up during a time in our history when "classic chic" was the order of the day, so her view on today's styles is not at all surprising. I agree with some of her comments, especially that regarding leggings. I'd just say that one should consider their body type, when choosing an appropriate top. I personally favor a longer top, such as a tunic, to create a long and lean silhouette. In any case, Iris will forever remain atop my style icon list.