Iris Apfel: an inspiration to young fashionistas

Iris Apfel made her name as a high-society interior designer before a show at the New York Met turned her into a fashion influencer. At 100 years old, she’s still going strong.

“I always like to do things as if I’m playing jazz; try this, try that,” says Iris Apfel. Having just celebrated her 100th birthday, the self-described “geriatric starlet” is still finding ways to express herself. This year alone, she has designed eyewear collections for Zenni Optical and teamed up with Lowes and the online market place Etsy to curate a selection of her favourite items. She marked her birthday by launching a collection with clothing chain H&M that will showcase her “creative and audacious style”. 

Among younger generations of fashionistas it has become almost de rigeur to cite Apfel (motto: “More is more and less is a bore”) as an inspiration. Yet her public celebrity is a comparatively recent phenomenon and, in line with her philosophy of life, down to happenstance. 

Redesigning the White House

Apfel’s first metier was interior design and fabrics, says CNBC. Her company, Old World Weavers – founded with her husband Carl Apfel in 1950 – specialised in sourcing fabric reproductions from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. She managed projects at the White House over presidencies stretching from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. Her second career, as a high-fashion influencer, began in 2005 when she was well into “retirement”, says Town & Country. When a scheduled show at the New York Met’s Costume Institute was unexpectedly cancelled, leaving the curator scrambling around for a compelling replacement at short notice, he thought of approaching Iris – a lifelong acquirer of couture clothes and costume jewellery. The resulting show, Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection, showcasing everything from Apfel’s oversized tortoise shell glasses to her whimsical patterned coats and chunky jewellery, created “an avalanche of public attention”, says The Wall Street Journal. “People kept telling me I was an overnight sensation,” she wrote in her 2018 book, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon. ‘You’re right,’ I would reply. ‘Except my overnight was 70 years.’” 

Born in Queens, New York in 1921, the only child of Samuel and Sadye Barrel, the seeds of Apfel’s later career were sewn young. Her father imported toys, musical instruments and antiques from Germany; her mother owned a fashion boutique.

“She had tremendous style,” Apfel recalled and, because of the Depression, learned “how to do things with less” – an attitude later celebrated by her daughter’s penchant for mixing haute couture with vintage flea market finds. “I’m always interested in combining the high with the low.” Young Iris loved playing with fabric remnants and, as a teenager, she haunted the antique shops of Greenwich Village. 

Cross-generational appeal

Apfel studied history of art at New York University, attended art school in Wisconsin and became a copy editor at Women’s Wear Daily. She met her husband and later business partner, Carl, in 1947. They shared the same droll sense of humour, says Town & Country. “I figured he was cool, and he was cuddly, and he cooked Chinese, so I couldn’t do any better.” Having founded their business “when the Cold War was in its infancy”, the Apfels travelled the world sourcing textiles and other curiosities for their business, says The Wall Street Journal.

Carl died three days short of his 101st birthday in 2015, leaving Iris to pursue her burgeoning solo career. She signed her first modelling contract aged 97 and is now thought to be worth around $25m. “In a culture that still tends to celebrate youth, there is something remarkable about how Iris’s appeal has intensified in her 90s,” notes one business partner. She is “cross-generational”.

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