29th Aug 2021
Today marks the 100 birthday of New York fashion legend Iris Apfel. The nonagenarian has had a long, varied and exciting career but it was only in her older years that she became the Insta-famous icon that we know and love today. Her no-filter one-liners and stunning style meant that former IMAGE Editor Rosaleen McMeel was very excited to meet with her earlier for a former issue – and she did not disappoint.
In celebration of her birthday, we pulled one this year’s best interviews from our print archives to share with our online readers. You can read the full conversation below. Happy birthday Iris!
Ageing gets a bad wrap, in both societal and sartorial terms. But according to nonagenarian Iris Apfel, we need to adjust our mindsets, not necessarily our wardrobes. “I’m the world’s oldest living teenager. I feel very young in spirit, and I’m interested in doing new things. For me, that’s very healthy,” says the instantly recognisable tastemaker. Although a favourite among the fashion industry, Apfel doesn’t sugarcoat her message to contemporary designers. “I think the ridiculous focus on youth and making dresses that cost thousands of dollars for bodies that are 18 years old is so ridiculous. They can’t afford them, and all the women who can afford them look ridiculous if they wear them – it doesn’t make any sense.
“The trouble is everybody is trying to look like everybody else, and that’s being fostered by the internet. Everybody should be herself, good, bad or indifferent. You can always try and be better, but people should stop trying to be somebody else.”
Not afraid to lead by example, Apfel was one of the first women to wear jeans, if not the first. “Not only were they not available for women at the time, they weren’t a fashion item for men. They were just working clothes. The first time I wore them, I put a very interesting outfit together, and everyone loved it.”
In a world that fawns over youth, Apfel’s voice is refreshing, and her musings form the basis of a new book, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon (Harper Design, approx €29, out now), an entertaining and thought-provoking volume that captures her irrepressible joie de vivre.
Apfel and her late husband Carl Apfel had founded Old World Weavers, an international textile manufacturing company that specialised in reproducing antique fabrics for a prestigious clientele, from Greta Garbo to Estee Lauder. They also consulted at the White House during nine consecutive administrations. She was a little bit famous, known in New York interior-design circles.
But as recalled in Iris, directed by the late Albert Maysles, it was a phone call a decade into her retirement in 2005 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Costume Institute that changed everything. What resulted was the only show of its kind at the Met that had focused on a living female who wasn’t a designer, and was styled by Apfel, who dressed the mannequins according to the irreverent ways she wore the garments. The response was unprecedented, and a fashion star was born.
Since then, she’s fronted collections for Kate Spade, jewellery designer Alexis Bittar and collaborated with MAC Cosmetics. Despite two hip operations – she underwent one after tripping over the hem of an Oscar de la Renta dress at a fashion shoot – she continues to grace countless magazine covers. Last month, a Barbie doll was created in her likeness.
“Next week, we’re having a big cocktail party at Bergdorf Goodman in New York [to celebrate the book launch] and I have a pop-up shop, which has been very exciting,” she tells me. “Bergdorf let me go shopping and select things for it and put some of my own pieces in it as well, and they gave me all the windows on Fifth Avenue to display my clothes and style them for the windows.”
When quizzed on the source of her energy, Apfel becomes momentarily downbeat. “Sometimes I worry about losing it… but I still do more than any 30-year-old I know. I have no secrets. I don’t have any special diets; I never eat junk food, I don’t like it. I don’t like heavy spices, I don’t like rich food, I don’t drink sodas and stuff, I’m not a lush, and I don’t smoke anymore.”
Combining multiple careers over a lifetime is no mean feat, and Apfel uses each experience to inform the next. “I am a sponge. I’m always absorbing something even if I’m unaware of it. When I was putting my first museum show together, I didn’t realise I knew all the things I did. I’ve been going to museums for so long, I just absorbed so much that I didn’t know I did.”
Experience is something Apfel feels has been negatively impacted by the digital revolution. “I feel so sorry for young people because they don’t have many experiences anymore. They just press buttons.” Her book includes a chapter entitled “Your Smartphone is Not Your Brain”. “It’s true. People are acting like it is, and in the States, it’s become a substitute for many youngsters, and I think it’s pitiful.” When I ask her about the potential conflict with her own Instagram account, which currently boasts 872k followers and counting, she is quick to dispel her involvement. “I don’t do Instagram,” she says. “I didn’t even know I had a page [until recently]. It’s so extraordinary because it’s done by a charming young woman in Vienna, Austria.” While she approves of her certified account, she is quick to dismiss social media as a form of communication. “I don’t like it at all. So much of it is unnecessary, and I think so many people use it in lieu of doing something themselves. So many youngsters have no inner life at all.”
As for parting style advice? “Many people take it too seriously, and my advice to them is to relax and if it’s a chore, if looking well is a big problem and you’re uptight about the way you look and it makes you nervous, forget it – it’s better to be happy than well dressed”.
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