Her colourful, eclectic style and creative personality make this nonagenarian truly one in a million
It is not hard to spot Iris Apfel in a crowd – her shock of white hair, signature owlish glasses and flamboyant style make her instantly recognisable. While she may be the most stylish and busiest 96-year-old in the fashion world, Apfel does not actually spend much of her time thinking about clothes. In an interview with Bettie Bearden Pardee, she explained, "I love clothes, honestly, I think they're important and people should dress well, if it makes them happy. But if they're going to be obsessed and uptight about it, and make themselves miserable, I think it's better to be happy than well-dressed." Spoken like a realist.
Beyond haute couture, Apfel was first and foremost an interior designer. In 1950, with her late husband, Carl Apfel, the couple began Old World Weavers, a company specialising in restorational furnishings. Although small, the textile firm was prestigious: the Apfels provided fabrics for the State Department, worked with the wives of nine presidents on the White House and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As they sourced and produced textiles from all over the world, the duo globetrotted and she began collecting pieces of non-Western, artisanal clothes. These clothes were the ones she wore to the high-society parties of Old World Weavers' clients, a reflection of her eccentric sense of style.
Celebrity status came late to Apfel; she was 83 and a retired businesswoman. In 2005, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York staged an exhibition of her wardrobe. Housed in the Costume Institute, the modest display featured pieces from her personal collection of finds, all put together by Apfel herself. Some of the exquisite pieces included rare New York and Paris designer numbers acquired throughout her life, like a coat of multi-coloured rooster, duck and fowl feathers by Jean-Louis Scherrer from 1962 and a Geoffrey Beene orange jumpsuit from the early 80s. Although the display, called "Rara Avis", was a last-minute show (after a planned exhibition had cancelled) with very little promotion, it turned out to be a dynamic success. Visitors were captivated by Apfel's exuberant collection and the way she wore the pieces, which was recreated on the mannequins.
The show was a moment that changed Apfel's life, turning her, as she self-professed, into a "geriatric startlet." Catapulting her into the public eye, Apfel started getting recognised on the streets, and press requests and invitations started pouring in. Since then, Apfel has remained active in launching partnerships with brands: she has starred in campaigns alongside Tavi Gevinson and Karlie Kloss, appeared as the cover girl for Australian fashion brand, Blue Illusion's ad campaign, launched an accessories line for HSN and released a fashion collaboration with Macy's, just to name a few.
As if her résumé is not already impressive, Apfel has also become a #FROW regular and a muse for New York Fashion Week; from Ralph Lauren's 2006 tribute collection to her work as a textile designer to Joanna Mastroianni's catwalk show inspired by her style. Apfel's penchant for bright colours inspired a few other collections as well, including a MAC cosmetics' range ('Pink Pigeon' and 'Scarlet Ibis', referencing the name of the Met show, Rare Bird) and Jimmy Choo's 2012 mini collection of ethnic-glam accessories in Apfel's honour.
From the museum to the front row and the shopfloor, the story of the fashion maverick did not stop there. In 2015, her maximalist style and sharp-wit are captured in the documentary, Iris. Even though, she is no stranger to the documentary-game, having appeared in fashion profiles like Bill Cunningham: New York and Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's, Apfel initially declined director Albert Maysles' offer. In an interview with People, she said, "I wasn't interested at all in doing a documentary. I was not a public figure." Fortunately – and to much of our relief – with the help of Apfel's friends, she finally gave in and Iris was made. More than a fashion film, the documentary tells a story of Apfel's creativity, work ethics and enthusiasm even at an advanced age.
Although Apfel got her It-girl status late in life, her playfulness and not-taking-fashion-seriously mentality are what make her so likeable and inspirational, even to much younger fans. Hilarious and brilliant, she is a reminder that it is never too late to say "yes" to opportunities, and staying true to oneself, just like one of her famous quotes which echoed, "When you don't dress like everybody else, you don't have to think like everybody else." Needless to say, we all know who we want to be when we grow older.