Iris Apfel, a free spirit

4 Mar

The first time I noticed Iris Apfel was in Vogue Italia a couple of years ago. I saw this beautiful elderly lady wearing lots of exotic jewelery and interesting clothes, too bad I couldn’t read her story…

At the time I was in a ‘exotic necklaces’ period myself. I gained a lot of weight because of my illnesses and medication and didn’t know how to dress any longer. I only had one dress-pattern left I thought looked good on me and I decided I would only wear the one dress with lots of beautiful necklaces, high-heeled shoes and a variety of  handbags. This way I could still play around with my look. I already owned some nice exotic folklore jewelery, but I started collecting more on my journeys to the Far East.

Last december I was invited to a launching party for a new magazine and wore a simple red velvet dress, I wanted to spike up a little. That evening I wore a bunch of my exotic necklaces and told everyone it was my tribute to Iris Apfel…. I hope they understood I was joking!



Mrs. Apfel is 90 years old now and thinks her sudden cult status is very funny. She was just minding her own business, when the Costume Institute wanted to borrow some of her accessories and then thought they could perhaps borrow some of her clothes to put them in context. Iris liked the idea and asked: “What would you like?” Then Pandora’s box opened, her closets, drawers, boxes and armoires contained so many treasures, the museum decided to do an exhibition exclusively about her and her wardrobe. The exhibition was called  ‘Iris Apfel: Rare Bird of Fashion’.

Iris Apfel and her husband Carl founded their own textile firm ‘Old World Weavers’ in 1952. It all began when Iris was looking for a certain fabric she couldn’t find, then designed it herself after an old sample and had it woven. She got an offer by the textile company to design more and Carl became the company’s first salesman.

They traveled all over the world to find designs and then the fabricators, asking them to use their original looms. Their business developed without a master plan. The fabrics were expensive, but crafted by hand and not meant for mass production anyway. They started doing custom-made, because there was no money for stocking up. Iris recreated patterns she hunted down from old books, museums, second-hand shops and flea markets. Her limited audience contained some very loyal clientele, like Estee Lauder, Marjorie Merriweather Post, Jacqueline Onassis and Greta Garbo. Iris and Carl were called by the White House through nine presidential administrations, to produce exact reproductions of fabrics for furniture, walls and draperies.

They sold their Old World Weavers company 17 years ago to the prestigious Stark Carpet Company, after they refused many other offers to sell. The Apfel’s were kept on as working hands, consulting to Stark.

During all her travels with Carl, Iris found the most beautiful objects. Not only fabrics, jewelery and clothes, but also art and antiques. In clothes she doesn’t make a difference if it comes from junk or couture. She also shops at Topshop and loves a bargain. She habitually finds clothes so cheap, she doesn’t bother to try them on. ‘What the hell, if they don’t fit, I’ll turn them into pillows.’

‘In the old days, designers didn’t care about archives and you could buy their one-off samples. And in Tunisia you could buy jeans directly from the people who were making them for Pierre Cardin. Also the souks and flea markets were great places for good finds. Nowadays they’re all picked over.’

Being unconventional has had lasting benefits. ‘If you can’t be pretty, you have to learn to make yourself attractive. I found that all pretty girls I went to highschool with came to middle age as frumps, because they just got by with their pretty faces, so  they never developed anything. They never learned how to be interesting. But if you are bereft of certain things, you have to make up for them in certain ways.’

Iris’ look has been described as “controlled flamboyance”‘by Lisa Koeningsberg, President of Initiatives in Art and Culture. “To dress this way, there has to be an educated visual sence. It requires courage.”

What appeals to me the most about Iris Apfel  is her originality and free spirit. She is not dictated by fashion, but solely by her own exquisite taste. Mrs. Apfel is ‘street deluxe’.

In the short time since her sudden fame Iris has designed a jewelry collection for and a make up collection for Mac. And she did a smashing  job at both of them! Rumour says she is going to design a jewel collection under her own name….

Here is a quotation from our fashion Icon regarding accessories : “For me the key to personal style lies in accessories. My friends tell me that my oversized glasses and my pairs of bracelets have become my unwritten signature. I have amassed an enormous ‘collection’ of bags, belts, bangles and beads without which I would be lost. One can change the entire look of an outfit by substituting one accessory for another. I love objects from different worlds, different eras, combined my way. Never uptight, achieving – hopefully – a kind of throwaway chic.” Iris Apfel.

Watch this video of Iris Apfel for the Rare Bird of Fashion exhibition:


2 Responses to “Iris Apfel, a free spirit”

  1. Astrid 5 March 2012 at 09:29 #

    An inspiring example of aging gracefully….

  2. Ruth Johnson 22 March 2018 at 00:51 #

    I’m really just finding out about this woman who was born on the same day as I and I wondered all the time why was so weird and strange then I don’t like as much as she likes but I’m borderline so hopefully by the time I get 95 I’ll be out there with box bracelets and 20 chains onto I love it I love it I love it I love it thank you for living long enough for me to see you

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