Iris Apfel: A style icon basking in M.A.C glory

By Janetta Mackay

Ninety-year-old Iris Apfel hasn't let age quash her unique (and timeless) style.

Iris Apfel. Photo / Supplied
Iris Apfel. Photo / Supplied

Mixing hand-picked designer threads with recycle and jewels with jetsam is a very modern approach to dressing, but it has always been the way the inimitable Iris Apfel has styled herself.

The New Yorker's approach to her appearance has seen her find fashion fame at a time when contemporaries are shuffling about in elastic pants and slippers. She has long been a striking fixture on the New York art and philanthropic scene, but it was in 2005 that she won wider recognition when she was the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Rara Avis [Rare Bird]: The Irreverent Iris Apfel. With her trademark glasses, layers of beads and bracelets and colourful lipstick she is much cited as a style icon and feted in the fashion press. Now, at the tender age of 90, she has won the ultimate 21st century celebrity accolade, a beauty collection named in her honour. The Iris Apfel for M.A.C collection on which she collaborated is inspired by her flair and features a striking range of lipsticks, eye shadows and a beauty powder.

Viva spoke with the self-described "geriatric starlet" who said she was enjoying the surprises later life was bringing. "It feels great. It beats going out to pasture. It's fun to start all these amazing careers at my tender age," she said.

Apfel, who still consults and lectures about style, officially retired in 1992 when she and her husband Carl sold their textile business Old World Weavers. Their restoration projects included working at the White House for nine presidents, from Truman to Clinton. An only child whose father owned a glass business and whose Russian-born mother had a fashion store, the then Iris Barrel studied art history at New York University and went to art school at the University of Wisconsin before landing a job at Women's Wear Daily. She later moved into interiors and married Carl Apfel in 1948. The couple have no children, collect art, and have been generous donors to charities including gifting more than US$1 million to an eye institute.

Not surprisingly the eyes have it when Iris Apfel is asked what she thinks people see most note when they look at her. "Everyone comments on my glasses and jewellery," she says.

At what age did you become aware of having a distinctive personal style?

When I was four-years-old, my family and I were away for the summer at a resort. My mother loved to dress me up and one evening she was dressing me for dinner and I begin to scream and stamp my feet. Everyone came running in thinking something was wrong. I was having a tantrum because she put a big hair ribbon in my hair that didn't match the rest of my outfit. Eventually I grew not to like "matchy matchy", so my mother's choice was right.

At what age did you first feel truly comfortable in your outer self?

Probably when I was 17 or 18-years-old, I began to experiment and create outfits. I remember when I was 18 I created this one outfit that was a sensation ... with tons and tons of jewellery. I had a very definite style. My clothes were always tailored and I always wore a turban and big, big earrings.

Has wider renown changed your approach to appearance or reinforced it?

I haven't changed at all. I'm exactly the way I was. My husband and I laugh about it. I'm no different than I was 50 years ago, just older.

What does a dress-down day consist of you wearing?

Oh, I don't dress up during the day. I wear mostly jeans. One designer once said something like "for me the day doesn't exist," because he only liked to design evening clothes.

Do you dress to please yourself, others, or a combination?

I dress to please myself. I dress up because I like it. I have fun.

How do you dress? Do you regularly plan outfits, start with a particular garment or accessory, or go with the flow each day?

No, I usually don't plan, I just go with what I feel is right. I strongly believe the fun is in the process - not the end result.

Do you have a favourite decade (other than your current one) in which you felt particularly fabulous?

I always feel fabulous. I think it's important to always love how you feel, no matter what age.

With the benefit of hindsight, how would you describe modern-day dress standards?

Women today have a bigger opportunity to be themselves. They are not so encumbered by fashion dictates. They have a great opportunity to be more original and mix and match.

Any tips for women wanting to improve their personal style?

You have to learn who you are first and then express that through your style. Don't try to be anyone else. I think trying to look like a spring chicken when you're not makes you look ridiculous.

As a young woman did you have a female role model?

Well, my mother worshipped at the altar of accessories. She had fashion boutiques where she sold beautiful costume jewellery and I caught the bug from her. I think accessories have great transformative powers. I started collecting at age 11.

Did working in fashion and interiors shape your personal style or do you think you were drawn to these paths because they allowed your individuality to shine?

It's a combination of both.

Can you tell how someone will dress by their décor?

Sometimes, but it really depends on whether they did their home themselves or if they had a designer do it. This is the same if they have a stylist who dresses them or not.

Which of the presidents or first ladies whom you helped with furnishings showed the best or most surprising taste?

Patricia Nixon was very interested and involved in the process of replication and restorations [at the White House]. She was such a lovely woman.

I've read you don't like to spend a fortune on clothes, yet you have a museum-worthy collection, how did this come about?

It's very hard work. Years ago I had the wit in Paris to go to couture at the end of seasons. Luckily I was the size of mannequins and I would get the clothing and only have to adjust a hem in order for it to fit. For me it's the process I like; digging around and finding things. To me it's not amusing to visit a shop and have a saleslady pick out my outfits. I feel like it's not personal.

Do you still shop?

Every once in a while I get the urge to go somewhere. Maybe Bergdorf or Loehmann's. My most recent purchase was a great pair of fur trousers.

Looking back, what was the best thing you ever bought to wear?

Oh, there are a number of pieces. That's like trying to name your favourite child.

* The Iris Apfel for M.A.C collection is at M.A.C counters now for a limited time.

- NZ Herald

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