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Iris Apfel: The Uncommonly Rare Style Icon

Andrew Fox
By Andrew FoxJuly 27, 2015
(Iris Apfel/Magnolia Pictures)

Iris Apfel, 93-year-old style icon, proves that style has no age. Andrew Fox writes about this uncommonly rare bird of style and fashion.

Iris Apfel: Style Icon

Legend has it that Iris Apfel was shopping one day when she was spotted by by Frieda Loehmann, of the famed department store. Loehmann told her, “You’re not pretty, and you’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. You have something much better. You have style.” Loehmann hit the nail on the head.

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In the decades that followed, Apfel created a name for herself with her exquisite taste and one-of-a-kind personal style. Who else can take a vintage church vestment (found at a flea market) have it made into a cocktail suit, pair it with stacks of vintage bangles and ropes of ethnic beads? There’s only one person to pull off such a look, and that person is Iris Apfel.

Throughout the history of fashion there have been countless muses who have inspired and influenced designers, and consequently, the way we dress. However, fewer individuals can fit into the more exclusive category of style icon. For this is the only way to accurately describe Apfel, who has risen to the upper echelon of tastemakers with her unique personal style and unapologetic attitude towards fashion. Typically seen in her trademark glasses, bold prints and an impossibly chic mix of global finds, thrift store and designer pieces, she truly deserves the attention she has garnered in her golden years.

Recently the fashion industry has begun to celebrate older women, even featuring them prominently in ad campaigns for some of the world’s top designers. Apfel starred in Kate Spade and Alexis Bittar’s Spring 2015 ads. Joan Didion and Joni Mitchell were featured in Celine and Saint Laurent’s advertisements. Advanced Style a fashion blog, which celebrates “the most stylish and creative older folks” on the streets of New York City and around the world, also became a successful documentary chronicling the lives of some of Ari Seth Cohen’s most fabulous subjects.

“…70 year old ladies don’t have 18-year old bodies, and 18 year olds don’t have 70-year olds’ dollars.”

The Life of Iris Apfel

(Iris Apfel/Magnolia Pictures)

Apfel grew up in Queens, New York, and went to school at New York University. In 1948 she married Carl Apfel. Two years later they opened Old World Weavers, a firm that would go on to take part in design restoration projects for the White House and nine presidents, in a relationship that spanned from 1950-1992. The couple would travel near and far, sourcing fabrics and pieces for their projects. Along the way, she began adding to her collection of exotic pieces that she mixed and matched, thereby creating her unique and eclectic manner of dressing.

It was only in recent years that her unique personal style was publicly recognized. In 2005, The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art found themselves at a loss when an exhibition fell through at the last minute. They asked Apfel, then 80, if she would lend pieces from her extensive collection of clothing and accessories to be featured as a replacement. She agreed, and the exhibit, entitled “Rara Avis (“rare bird”) The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” was a smashing success. As a result, Apfel began to cement her status in the annals of fashion history.

It would be easy for her to dismiss the life lessons she has amassed over the years, but she holds true to her firm belief that we must learn from our past in order to create our future. “You learn as you grow up, if you’re intelligent or even three-quarter witted, that there’s no free lunch.”

“You pay for things in various ways. Living, loving, everything else is a matter of the same principles: you learn to work with what you have. And there’s nobody today who can’t do something to help herself.”

Today, Apfel is the subject of the documentary, “Iris,” directed by famed documentarian, Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens). In the film, she shares her pearls of wisdom, and lets the cameras into her fabulous life. At its core, the film spotlights a woman who always believed in herself and stayed true to her vision. Apfel credits her mother, who she says “worshipped at the alter of accessories,” for teaching her about style. As she puts it, “There’s no finding yourself in fashion, it’s a partnership, and you have to know who you are first.” She is no slave to fashion and admits that the industry does itself a disservice by not including women over a certain age. “Fashion has this youth mania,” Apfel says. “But 70 year old ladies don’t have 18-year old bodies, and 18 year olds don’t have 70-year olds’ dollars.” She believes that although things get more challenging with age, she has to push herself to avoid staying at home all day, brooding.

So go ahead, dig through that jewelry box, put on that fabulous jacket you love but never wear, even if you are going to the store or a walk in the park. Just make sure you look in the mirror and tell yourself, “You look fabulous!” Iris would want you to!

About the Author

Andrew Fox is a writer, educator and design enthusiast. He became an elementary school teacher after a successful career in the fashion industry in New York and San Francisco. He has written guest posts for the April Pride Blog. Andrew has also collaborated on two “Larry Gets Lost” Books, “Larry Gets Lost in Prehistoric Times” and “Larry Gets Lost in Washington D.C.” He believes that true style has no age, and loves to help people look and feel their best by helping them develop their personal style.

How do you express your personal style? What timeless, fashionable pieces are a part of your wardrobe? Share your comments with us below.

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