Living fashion legend Iris Apfel in her first-ever Indian fashion shoot

Iris Apfel has just come up for air after the circus—as some would call it—that is New York Fashion Week. Apfel, a Fashion Week veteran who just turned 96, has diminishing interest in the big top. “It’s hideous. It’s so difficult to get anywhere on time,” she says. She barely had any time for the actual shows, even though Naeem Khan and Delpozo were on her radar. Most designers, she adds, have gone so far out they’re not relatable anymore. And then: “Is this the interview? Has it begun?”

Just to get this out of the way, Apfel is wearing a pink terry wool robe over black pants when we meet. Along with her signature thick-rimmed owlish glasses and a touch of lipstick. Yes, she wears terry cloth. Even Iris Apfel is off-duty sometimes. 

Not very often, though. For this icon of style and eccentricity, who calls herself the “world’s oldest teenager”, life is running full-tilt. Apfel became famous at the age of 84—when the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute chose to present a fashion retrospective honouring her. Until then, she was well known in New York circles, but the exhibition trained a brighter spotlight on her exuberance and spunk. Apfel was a rara avis, a rare bird, with her brightly coloured Bakelite bangles, taffeta, feathered necklaces, and exaggerated glasses. From Ralph Lauren to M.A.C cosmetics and Jimmy Choo, product lines were launched as a tribute to her style. Then, two years ago came Iris, a documentary made by the legendary film-maker Albert Maysles. We are sitting in the very same Park Avenue home that forms the visual backdrop for the film, and Apfel is apologising for the disarray. 

There’s certainly a lot to look at. Florentine antiques, old wooden screens and chinoiserie mirrors share space with volumes on fashion, art and textiles, children’s toys and stuffed animals. Apfel loves teddy bears. A rack loaded with coats and costume jewellery has just returned from a Hong Kong exhibition. I sit across Apfel at a table with a block-printed tablecloth on which sits an Anglepoise lamp. To the left is a glimpse of a kitchen painted in fern green. By an old Sharp television, atop a bunch of papers, sits a single red shoe. It’s hard to escape the parallels between this curiously layered home and Apfel’s own style of dressing, which she compares to a jazz improvisation. Much like it takes a talented jazz artist to develop the ability to process and manipulate multiple layers, Apfel’s way with style is undeniable artistry.

“I don’t have any rules about how I dress. It’s not intellectual. It’s all gut. The problem today is that young people all look exactly alike. And if you look alike, you tend to think alike. Black has its place, but not as a constant uniform. In winter in New York, on the streets, everyone looks exactly alike from the back: black tights, black boots, black leather bombers, black scarf. The world is so bleak, we need colour now more than ever.”

Apfel’s mix-n-match aesthetics are much sought after. She’s given lectures to fashion students, sold her line of jewellery through the Home Shopping Network, and is designing jewellery for the Swarovski Atelier. She has been the subject of museum exhibitions, a coffee table book, and graces the cover of magazine after magazine. 

“Someone once said that the most exciting thing about going to a party is getting dressed for it. And I agree. But I would add that if getting dressed up makes you uptight, if it takes too much of your time, forget it. It’s better to be happy than be stylish.”

In the Maysles documentary, Apfel recollects a time as a young woman when she worked at Loehmann’s, once a chain of department stores across the United States. A manager took the liberty of telling her, “You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty, but you have something much better—you have style.” Apfel says the comment never stung, because she never valued beauty as an attribute. But she has always been aware of the sway of style.

“I remember being at a resort when I was four years old, and my mother dressing me up for an event—she used to make me stand on an orange box for height. She put a bow on my hair as a finishing touch, as she tended to, but that day I decided the colour didn’t perfectly match my dress, and started screaming like a banshee. Look at me now. I hate matchy-matchy. I guess mother knows best.”

Apfel speaks a lot about the importance of relationships—of the bonds she shared with her mother and her husband Carl. The only two people she says, whose opinions she cared about. Apfel was born in 1921, to a wealthy family in Queens. Her mother was always a vision of perfection, in “the manner of the Duchess of Windsor, with never a hair out of place”. In 1948, she married Carl Apfel, a charming man, amused and impassioned by the same things as her, with whom she ran a successful textile and home design company called Old World Weavers. Together, they worked with several American presidents on White House redecorations and indulged in extensive globetrotting. 

“Twice a year we set out for Europe. We’d leave the South of Italy on steamers and all manner of boats onwards to North Africa and the Middle East, stopping at these exotic ports I couldn’t name. My big regret was not travelling to India. But those souks and markets… they were my life. The dirtier the better. Each time we’d return with a 40-foot container filled with wares for clients, and ourselves.” 

Her husband Carl died two years ago, after almost 68 years of marriage. To see them—her—captured in the photographs Carl took through the years, is to know that Apfel has always been exactly this way, sporting her unequivocal individuality, wearing men’s jeans paired with Chinese shaman robes at a time when few other women could conceive of it. 

“People call me a rebel, but I’m not. I don’t dress a certain way to attract attention or make a statement, so if someone doesn’t like it, it’s their problem and not mine. I couldn’t care less about statement making or fashion policing.” 

What happens to us when we are confronted with blazing individualism? Do we feel awe, admiration, provocation, or a combination? Every era has had its ideas of beauty, style and expression. Do we have an intellectual template for understanding departures from those? I ask her how she, as a young woman, negotiated her individuality and people’s responses to it. 

“I learnt early on, at kids’ camp, in fact, that if there isn’t a place for your differences, you make one. Without kicking and screaming. The best way for the other girls to accept you is to first be one of them. You release your differences slowly. You do it intelligently and appropriately.”

Her younger years were caught between two waves of feminism…

“I don’t really know what feminism means anymore. I don’t like –isms, they’re as confining as the things they are fighting against. Sometimes, more so. I never felt held back because I was a woman. If you want to do something, you should just go ahead and try. You might fail, but try anyway.”

Apfel is at her most animated when she’s railing against something. Like fashion’s preoccupation with youth…

“Fashion makes clothes for slim, young bodies, but for the pocketbooks of older women, who have the time and money to shop. So, they wear these clothes for young women and look ridiculous. It’s terribly sad.”

Or technology…

“People are constantly texting each other all the time. Even at restaurants. Are they all deaf-mutes?”

Or millennials…

“Employing young people is not something I do; so many of them have no manners.”

The one thing that Apfel doesn’t like to talk about is legacy. Carl and she chose consciously not to have children, and the question of the ownership of their abundance of personal possessions—much of which is in storage—is the elephant in the room.

“I don’t like to talk about what I’m going to do with everything. It’s depressing. Many of my clothes I’ve begun donating to the Peabody [Essex Museum]. I mean, shopping is a disease, but it’s been 20 years since I went to the flea markets of Paris. I’ve bought jewellery, which I have too much of so I keep having sales, but I’ve stopped buying.” 

That’s hard to believe. Shopping is one of Apfel’s great talents. In the documentary, one scene follows her as she’s pushed in her wheelchair around the streets of Harlem by Nigerian-born designer Duro Olowu. It takes her a second to spot a coat she loves, which she purchases after a little bargaining dance. Apfel enjoys the adventure of a shopping trip, the aesthetics of negotiation, the shared empathy of compromise. She’s a social animal, and that means that it’s hard to stay home. Even on the days when that’s all that her body orders.

“My mother’s friend once said: When you get to being my age, you wake up in the morning, and everything that you have two of, one hurts. But I still have the other. The toughest time was when Carl passed away. I could’ve stayed home and cried and moped. But he would’ve hated that. So, I kept going. And God was good and sent me a lot of work. Now, no two days are alike.” 

Every designer, curator, marketer and fashion blogger wants a piece of Apfel. She may like the attention most times, but she doesn’t suffer fools, or care for excessive prying. (It’s a good thing I haven’t asked her to describe the distinct shade of her hair, even though I’m curious. My guess is somewhere near 263 C on the Pantone spectrum.)

“People want to know everything. It’s what I call stupid blogger questions: favourite this, favourite that, how many of this and that.”

That attention is going nowhere, and neither is the twilight of her career—she’s just completing a book titled The Accidental Icon with Harper Collins, due for release next March. For many, she is the free-spirited antidote to reigning homogeneity. For most, she offers clues to how we must navigate our own futures. With spirit and style. And appropriateness—a word Apfel says is going out of fashion. But most crucially, a healthy respect for the passage of time. 

“You must live the present, that’s the only thing you know. You can’t do anything about the past and don’t know what will happen in the future. I never look back. Ageing happens, and so does illness and death, so why dwell on it? I’m 96 years old but in my head I’m four and a half. Whatever!”

Styling: Malini Banerji, Photos: Bikramjit Bose, Make-up: Eric Vosburg/Anima Creative Management; Assisted by: Stuti Gupta and Divya Gursahani (Styling) 

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