How Iris Apfel became an icon in her 90s

(Image credit: Getty Images)


The matriarch of maximalism has died, aged 102. ‘More is more, and less is a bore’ was her mantra, and her unique style and wisdom brought joy and inspiration to many.

'Great personal style is an extreme curiosity about yourself', said Iris Apfel, pictured here in 2014 (Credit: Alamy)

‘Great personal style is an extreme curiosity about yourself’, said Iris Apfel, pictured here in 2014 (Credit: Alamy)

She’s instantly recognisable from her eye-popping memorable outfits – and joyous, smiling face.

Apfel had a talent for pulling focus in any fashion column as well as her Instagram account (which has more than two million followers). There she is, sitting amid a confection of canary yellow frills, or with a ton of costume jewellery around her neck. A different scintillating look for every day and occasion – but what didn’t change for decades was her immaculate silver bouffant hairdo, coral-red lips, and huge spectacles – a black-rimmed infinity symbol broader than her face.

If Apfel was seen as kitsch and eccentric that was fine with her. She loved being the one all eyes swivelled to, be it on fashion’s front row, a movie premiere or just out shopping on Fifth Avenue. Never short on fun and bonhomie, this “accidental icon” – the title of her 2018 biography – was wonderfully refreshing among fashion’s sometimes serious cognoscenti. 

In her 90s, Apfel became a regular on the front row – pictured here at New York fashion week, 2016 (Credit: Getty Images)

In her 90s, Apfel became a regular on the front row – pictured here at New York fashion week, 2016 (Credit: Getty Images)

But where did this ostentatious and smart style arbiter come from? Apfel grew up with fashion in her pores, her eye developing as she watched her Russian-born mother run her fashion boutique in New York. She told The Guardian that her mother “taught me so many things”. By the age of 11, she was scouring flea markets near her home in Queens, New York, picking up vintage bags, cute silk dresses and costume jewellery that would form her extraordinary collection for a song (she always loved to bargain). 

And although she put in the training – art college, then working as a fashion copywriter for Women’s Wear Daily – Apfel’s talent as a hot style innovator showed up in her 20s, such as when she spotted and adopted a garment that was to take the fashion world by storm (and hasn’t stopped): jeans. We may imagine denim cool was invented by Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), or Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits (1961), but Apfel was ahead of these Hollywood stars. “In the ’40s I was probably the first woman to wear jeans,” she says in a scene in Iris. “All of a sudden I had a vision. I said ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I had… this sounds crazy, but a big gingham turban and very large hoop earrings I could wear with a nice crisp shirt and a pair of jeans.”

Apfel at home on Park Avenue in 2012 – 'If you're not interested, you're not interesting' was one if her mantras (Credit: Alamy)

Apfel at home on Park Avenue in 2012 – ‘If you’re not interested, you’re not interesting’ was one if her mantras (Credit: Alamy)

That “vision” shows in some of the designers she has championed in recent years, with her declarations of love for Ralph Rucci, Isabel Toledo and Naeem Khan. It was always thus, and can be seen what she chose to wear for her first date with Carl Apfel, her future husband. Instead of a Little Black Dress by Coco Chanel (too obvious), she chose a LBD by Norman Norrell (the “American Balenciaga”). It was  a hit – her personality winning him over – and after marrying Carl in 1948 (they were together 67 years, until his death in 2015, aged 100) they launched Old World Weavers, their textiles business producing replicas of antique fabrics. A big success, their clients ranged from Jackie Kennedy and Greta Garbo to the White House: Iris was a restoration consultant for the administrations of nine presidents, including Eisenhower, Nixon and Clinton.

Becoming an influencer

Her career was one of highs and super-highs. The costume jewellery she’d collected from around the world was in the latter, the star of a 2005 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – styled on mannequins as she would wear them. Entitled Rara Avis (Rare Bird): the Irreverent Iris Apfel, it was the first time the Met had focused on a living female who wasn’t a designer. She mixed 18th-Century paste earrings and a Mexican hammered-silver belt, shown with couture pieces from Dior and James Galanos. The response, mainly through word of mouth, was unprecedented. Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld attended the opening night and Apfel was catapulted to fashion fame.

The world sat up to acknowledge her as a star, with a lifetime of building a brand based around herself, and she was soon sought after to sell everything from cars to tech startups. In 2018 she modelled for Vogue; and Mattel made a silver-haired Barbie in her name.

Apfel’s popularity is perhaps a sign of the times. In recent decades older celebrity fashion models, like Carmen Dell’Orefice, 92, and Daphne Selfe, 95, are increasingly held up as glamorous, relevant and sought after.

Photographer Ari Seth Cohen, who featured her in his documentary Advanced Style, on fashionable New Yorkers aged 60 to 100, described how Apfel promotes “personality and personal expression rather than a youthful idea of perfection and beauty”.

'You've only got one trip, you have to remember that,' said Apfel, whose unique dress sense brought joy to those around her (Credit: Getty Images)

‘You’ve only got one trip, you have to remember that,’ said Apfel, whose unique dress sense brought joy to those around her (Credit: Getty Images)

Another fan is Tommy Hilfiger: “Iris Apfel has become a world-famous fashion icon because of her incredible talent not only as an artist, but as an influencer,” he said. “She has had an amazing effect on so many people with her huge heart and magic touch with everyone she meets.”

Aged 91, she became Dazed magazine’s oldest cover star, and certainly her fame just kept rising through her ninth decade, toward another high at the age of 97, with a modelling contract with IMG. In recent years she starred in campaigns for H&M, eBay and Citroën. At 101 she landed her first beauty campaign when she collaborated with Ciaté London on a makeup line.

This level of achievement came as no surprise to designer Dries Van Noten, who reflected with affection in her biography on what Iris Apfel meant to him: “I have rarely met someone as vivid, alive, vital, vivacious, irreverent, joyous and needed as Iris.” He added: “She breathes young air, thinks young thoughts and gathers no dust.”

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