You could say Iris Barrel Apfel has got the science of dressing herself down to a fine art. With her antique Chinese robes, masses of clanking costume jewellery, and topped off by her owlish frames, Apfel is a fashion icon to rank alongside the
When Iris Barrel was four-years-old, her mother dressed her up in a bow which elicited a screaming fit from the precocious child. As she recalls, “I got into a rage and began to whoop and holler and jump up and everyone came running because it sounded like my mother was after me with an axe! And I was pointing to my head saying, 'It doesn’t match!' I realise now that mother was always right but I didn’t like matchy matchy.”
Some 86 years later, and you could say Iris Barrel Apfel has got the science of dressing herself down to a fine art. With her antique Chinese robes, masses of clanking costume jewellery, and topped off by her owlish frames, Apfel is a fashion icon to rank alongside the likes of Millicent Rogers, Nan Kempner and more recently Daphne Guinness, women for whom dressing up is a form of creativity. Apfel lights up at the mention of the 1940s Standard Oil heiress, “Millicent was a major influence on my life – she was sensational. It was so nice that she had the money to do what she wanted to do. I wasn’t that fortunate but it made it even more fun. Without the resources you have to improvise, it’s more taxing but it’s rewarding and you learn more. The fun of all of it is not the results, but it is the process.”
"With her antique Chinese robes, masses of clanking costume jewellery, and topped off by her owlish frames, Apfel is a fashion icon"
It wasn’t always this way. For decades, Apfel was a social fixture on the New York social scene with her husband, Carl with whom she had founded a textile firm, Old World Weavers whose clients included the White House and Estee Lauder. Her relative anonymity ended in 2005 when the Metropolitan Museum put on Rara Avis: Selections From The Collection of Iris Barrel Apfel – the first exhibition at the museum dedicated to the collection of a fashion enthusiast rather than a designer. As she remembers it, “The show never started out being a fashion show but was about accessories. But [curator] Harold Koda came round and asked me to spare some outfits to show the accessories in the right context. It started the whole Pandora’s box – they looked through my armoires and wardrobes. In the end it was all the galleries at the Costume Institute and 80-odd mannequins!”
The unprecedented success of the exhibition (and accompanying book) was not something Apfel could have predicted and she remains tickled by it: “I think it’s hysterical. It made me a geriatric starlet! I keep telling my husband that it shouldn’t last because I’m no different in how I dressed. Nobody made such a fuss back then but now I’m very flattered.” And now at an age when most other nonagenarians would be taking it easy, Apfel has never been busier. She’s the subject of a documentary by Albert Maysles (whose documentary The Beales of Grey Gardens is virtually a prescribed film for fashion fans), been shot for Italian Vogue by Bruce Weber, launched a line of accessories on yoox.com and now has collaborated with MAC Cosmetics for a make-up range fittingly inspired by birds of paradise. She confesses, “I don’t know where I find the energy – I just go, go, go and when I stop, I fall apart and I need to reassemble! But when I’m doing it, I just love it.”
Though she calls herself “the world’s oldest living teenager”, Apfel doesn’t always find much in common with kids today. “Curiosity is very important and I’m so sad that so few young people have it. They’re not at all engaged and can’t carry out a relationship because they are always pressing buttons.” And don’t get her started on Lady Gaga. “Oh please!,” she smirks, “She’s very theatrical and I’m sure she’s very good at what she does but to make her a fashion icon is just ridiculous.” Apfel can get nostalgic for the past – “I would have liked to live in Byzantium or Paris before the First World War when everything was so creative and the Ballet Russes was jumping.” – but she remains forward looking, concentrating on what she does best – being herself. “I think Chanel said, “Nothing makes a woman look old than a woman trying to look young.” Dress appropriately and do your make-up appropriately and be yourself and you can look very chic. You can look beautiful at any age.”
Iris Apfel for MAC is available now.