Style Heroine

"It's really hard to describe oneself because I think very often one lives in other people's visions. I see myself as the world's oldest living teenager." - Iris Apfel Iris Apfel is a fashion legend. She came of age in Old New York and is a lady of culture and class. At 91 years old she still dresses to the nines day in and day out; and she shows up boring 20 somethings at every society event she attends. For years she has played muse to Bill Cunningham, the photographer for The New York Times Sunday Style and Evening Hours sections, who will hunt her down at parties, knowing that she will never disappoint when it comes to outfits. She went to university for art history and has worked for both Women's Wear Daily and interior designer Elinor Johnson. She and her husband Carl launched the textile firm Old World Weavers in 1950 and her looks display her intimate knowledge of fabrics and design. Her design restoration projects have taken her all over the country, most notably to Washington DC where she has worked inside the White House for nine different presidents. The lady's got staying power. And the most interesting thing about Iris is that she entered the spotlight not in youth, but in old age. She refers to herself as a "geriatric starlet!" Her clothing and art collections are coveted by people around the world, but she refuses to call herself a collector. She does not keep couture pieces locked up in plastic bags hidden in secret rooms -- she wears them and enjoys them. And best of all, she's a high to low kind of girl. She'll go to the thrift store and buy anything that catches her eye, never bothering to try the pieces on, "What the hell," she says to herself, "if they don't fit, I'll turn them into pillows." She decorates herself like she decorates a room -- she has mastered the art of drama, and her knowledge of pattern, color and proportion is beyond. Her theory about women's fashion is that its conventions and limitations are dictated by women's insecurities. Her textile business was very successful, and she's always had money available but she is not the kind to blow $700 on a handbag. She refuses to pay more than $15 for jeans (that's the textile knowhow in her) and she was around at a time when you could visit the couture houses and buy up their one-off samples for cheap. Thus, her closet is unlike any other. And her jewelry! Oh God there is nothing like it. Her pieces range from priceless to plastic and she layers them on like there's no tomorrow. The Costume Institute of New York took notice and asked to borrow a few pieces. They were dumbfounded by the extent of her collection -- and this resulted in the Metropolitan Museum of Art actually putting together an exhibition of her clothing and accessories, with the mannequins all wearing her trademark XL round frames, entitled Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel. Iris is a "rare bird" of fashion and it is so exciting to see a lady like this in action. She communicates the joy that is sometimes missing from fashion and reminds us all that it's supposed to be fun! [caption id="attachment_6394" align="aligncenter" width="1024" caption="Met Exhibit"][/caption] "It's not a trend," he says. "[She] appeals to a certain kind of joy in everybody." “I was one of the first New York women to wear boots” [caption id="attachment_6418" align="aligncenter" width="460" caption="Iris & her equally style savvy husband Carl"][/caption] "Money? Oh, I'm not rich." [caption id="attachment_6421" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Met exhibit"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_6422" align="aligncenter" width="668" caption="Iris in her Manhattan apartment"][/caption] Now let's take a brief tour of her apartment, a place where Iris literally blends in with the walls. [caption id="attachment_6423" align="aligncenter" width="668" caption="The library"][/caption] "Doing your own thing is very good," Apfel concludes, "if you have a thing to do." [caption id="attachment_6424" align="aligncenter" width="476" caption="The living room"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_6426" align="aligncenter" width="476" caption="Bakelight jewelry served up by a pup"][/caption] "You learn as you grow up, if you're intelligent – or even three-quarter witted – that there's no free lunch. You pay for things in various ways. Living, loving, everything else is a matter of the same principles: you learn to work with what you have. And there's nobody today who can't do something to help herself." [caption id="attachment_6427" align="aligncenter" width="476" caption="The perfect hallway"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_6428" align="aligncenter" width="476" caption="The reaction I'd imagine most would have upon entering her closet"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_6431" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Iris & Carl's spiffy frames"][/caption] "Iris dresses how we'd all dress if we had the eye. Fashion is like a big box of Lego to her." [caption id="attachment_6434" align="aligncenter" width="725" caption=""Turquoise goes with everything!""][/caption] [caption id="attachment_6435" align="aligncenter" width="1024" caption="A rare find: hard to find photos of her young"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_6436" align="aligncenter" width="990" caption="Carl & Iris"][/caption] "There's a sad lack of glamour in the world today," Apfel mourns. "And there's absolutely no fantasy."