Iris Apfel is an octogenarian fashion maven. Her flair with colour and accessories and her remarkable wardrobe was the subject of an exhibition, Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005. The show featured 82 ensembles and more than 300 accessories, chosen from a wardrobe amassed over the last 50 years. Far from being a dedicated clothes horse, Apfel was a successful businesswoman, starting up the textiles company Old World Weavers with her husband, Carl.
I love the outfits she put together, bold statements with striking colour combinations and oversized accessories. Most of all I love her fun and creative approach to dressing and “I don’t care what people think” attitude. Along with outfits from the collection I’ve included some quotes from this inspiring lady, they’re comforting and inspiring to read, especially if you’re feeling emotionally bruised after several of your work colleagues have enjoyed a good laugh at your outfit and at your expense. I hope when I hit my 80s I’m still even half as much fun as Apfel does with her outfits.
“I never bought to collect, I bought to wear.”
Geoffrey Beene jumpsuit, circa 1982, orange wool. Native American brooch, 1980s, silver and turquoise. Native American belt, 1980s, silver and turquoise. Italian cuffs, 1970s, silver and ceramic.
“I don’t care what people think…I learned a long time ago…I was 19 and had a very traumatic experience….and I learned that I have to go to bed with myself at night and that I have to please myself…and as long as I don’t go out of my way to offend anybody that I love, upset my mother or my husband…I’ll do my own thing. And if the public doesn’t like it, it’s their problem, not mine.”
House of Lanvin gown, circa 1985, gold, brown and gray silk taffeta. Bhutan arm bracelet, late 19th century, silver and amber. Tibet cuff bracelet, late 19th century, silver, amber, coral and turquoise. Tibet necklaces, early 20th century, silver, amber, coral and turquoise.
“I think dressing up or down should be a creative experience. Exciting. Fun. Whenever possible, it’s really great to start with a marvelously cut designer piece and build on it. 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.”
“The first week of the show a very nice lady came over and she said “Thank you Mrs. Apfel, thank you, thank you” and I said “Why are you thanking me?” And she said “Well first for the show, but frankly, you’ve given me courage…20 years I had this mad moment and I bought this insane necklace that I brought home, tried on, screamed and put back in the box….Now that I’ve come to your show, I’ve taken it out and people are admiring it.”
Bear-claw necklace, Navajo, late 1930s/early 1940s, silver/turquoise/onyx/bear claws.
“(My look is) either very baroque or very Zen - everything in between makes me itch.”
Jean-Louis Scherrer (French, founded 1962), Coat, autumn/winter 1990–1991, multicolored rooster, duck, and fowl feathers, Friedrich's Optik glasses
“In the right tonalities I never met a color I didn’t like.”
An Ungaro rabbit coat with velour pants.
“I’m a hopeless romantic. I buy things because I fall in love with them. I never buy anything just because it’s valuable. My husband used to say I look at a piece of fabric and listen to the threads. It tells me a story. It sings me a song. I have to get a physical reaction when I buy something. A coup de foudre – a bolt of lightning. It’s fun to get knocked out that way!”
Chinese panel skirt with twin sweater set and a jade carnelian necklace
“I do have a dominant shopping gene but, unlike a reasonable person, I never plan for what I need each season. I enjoy the thrill of the hunt, the discovery and the endless search. In another creation I was, perhaps, a hunter/gatherer. After all these years, I’ve learned that it’s not the end result or finished product but the process I most enjoy. If my experimenting, searching and juxtaposing turns into an exciting outfit well, it’s just a big fat bonus!”
“Whenever someone would admire the fabric on a finished piece and ask where it came from, my husband would say, “Thank you – I just shot my couch!”
Traveling ensemble, ca. 1965, Upholstery fabric [by Apfel's textiles company, Old World Weavers] of orange and brown tiger-stripe handwoven silk face on linen warp
“My so-called “collection” is my wardrobe. It’s a series of pieces I’ve accumulated over these many years. I love a timeless look, and I think if you develop your own style it’s not a problem – at least it hasn’t been for me. I can mix something I bought last week with something I’ve hoarded for 30 years. I don’t follow trends or the hottest fashion. I buy what I like and my tastes are quite catholic – haute couture to street fashion. Pieces that are Zen-simple or madly baroque. I love ethnic as well as contemporary. I’m fond of serious and adore amusing. I try to make all these things work together.”
Masters of Fashion: Style Iconoclast Iris Barrel Apfel