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You’ve seen her in fashion magazines, books and ads. You know her because of her distinctive, huge, round, black framed glasses, her silver mullet hair-do, her chunky necklaces, ten bracelets on each arm, and her over-the-top wardrobe consisting of mismatched outfits on her that seem so right. She’s lived in both New York City and in Palm Beach since the early 70s. She’s a true original, and on August 29, she turned 100 years old.
Her accomplishments are legion. Iris Barrel Apfel, with her husband Carl, co-founded Old World Weavers, an international textile manufacturing company that, from 1950 to 1992, specialized in reproducing antique fabrics. Married to Carl for 68 years until his death at 100, Iris credits much of her success to Carl and her own father because of his non-conformity and passion for life. Then too, she especially credits her stylish mother who was so ahead of her time that she went to law school while working as an astute businesswoman.
She remembers her mother’s advice, “Invest in a few classic pieces, like a little black dress, and put your money into accessories so you’ll have a million different outfits, and if your hair is done properly and you’re wearing good shoes, you can get away with anything.”
She and Carl and their company completed restoration projects for the White House under nine administrations, from Truman to Clinton, recreating antique fabrics as close to the original as possible, especially on the main floor of the White House. As they traveled the world searching for hard-to-find fabrics, Iris started collecting while seeking true originals and reproductions of fashions, textiles, and interior design.
She gathered artifacts from around the world and put them together in such shocking, bold, and novel ways that her nickname became the “First Lady of Fabric.” In 2005, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged “Rara Avis,” an immensely popular exhibition of her clothing and accessories which made her the first living woman who was not a fashion designer to be so honored. The show made her a geriatric starlet, and people told her she was an overnight sensation, whereby she replied, “You’re right except my overnight was 70 years long.”
She defines herself as a risk taker as she recently collaborated with the undergarment company Happy Socks for its Local Hero project. She endowed a textiles and apparel program at the University of Texas so students can study trend forecasting, licensing, archiving, styling, public relations, museum curating, and publishing.
In 2015, Albert Maysles made the movie called IRIS which highlighted her career and colorful personality. Next year, her new collaboration with H&M will offer colorful coordinated sets, floral suits, and printed dresses all in opulent fabrics to demonstrate her “more is more” attitude in over-the-top jewelry, silk pajamas and ready-to-wear ensembles. She’s been collaborating via Zoon with Swedish designers to show that style is ageless. She knows that the average life expectancy for white American women is 80 years but then, as she says, “You’re supposed to fade away. The fashion industry has neglected those between 60 and 80, and they have economic resources but not 18-year-old bodies.” Such honesty endears her to so many.
She’s popular because of the pleasure and confidence that a woman her age brings to fashion. She refuses to “take it easy” because she believes that the moment she does, life will end.
Iris loves color, texture, and embellishment, but like many of us, she hates on-line shopping. “I need to touch it and smell it,” she says, “and I can’t live without color. Color can raise the dead.” And like so many of us who admire her authenticity, her honesty, and her energy, she bemoans the decline of manners. She says, “The older I get, the more I see that common sense is not very common.”
For her, style is all about attitude. She says, “You have to know yourself before you can find your own style, and it’s not what you wear, but how you wear it. I don’t dress differently. Anywhere I go, I take myself with me. You can wear anything you please if it makes you happy. If other people don’t like it, it’s their problem, not yours. Dressing up adds a layer to your personality. God gave everybody a personality and a character, and they should enjoy it and not try to look like everybody else. I dress for myself. When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else. ”
“Life is a celebration,” she continues. “There is definitely no road map. Embrace its glamour, enjoy its mystery, and be open to the unexpected. Stop asking why and remember that in wonder life ends. If you’re happy, have found love, are surrounded by good people doing what you like and giving back to others, that’s success.”
So, is it any wonder that Iris Apfel is my role model in fashion, style and attitude? And because I’m not an original, as she is, I wear the big round black glasses, look for colorful prints, relish large, multiple accessories, and even go so far as to cover my mousy brown hair with hats because I don’t have the stunning white mullet hair-do she does. But to honor her wit, honesty, and zest for life, I paste her favorite sayings above my desk, all out-takes from her quotes from IRIS APFEL, ACCIDENTAL ICON:
“If you want to stay young, you have to think young. Having a sense of wonder, a sense of humor, and a sense of curiosity—these are my tonics. I hold the self-proclaimed record for being the World’s Oldest Living Teenager, and I intend to keep it that way.”
“I never expected to have two versions of a Barbie Doll made in my image or to have a day designated in my honor by the city of St. Louis.”
“You have to be interested to be interesting.”
“If I could remain one age forever, I wouldn’t. I don’t believe in that.”
I like stuff. I like being surrounded by a lot of things that give me pleasure to look at.”
“More is more and less is a bore.”
“You can learn to be fashionable. You can become fashionable. But as for style, either you got it or you ain’t.”
“I buy clothing to wear it, not collect it. I started buying my own clothes when I was two.”
“If an experience was wonderful, don’t try to re-create it. It will never be as beautiful as it was the first time.”