Film & Television

The Documentary ‘Iris’ Captures a Rare Bird Indeed

iris_posterCoco Chanel, arguably the chicest woman of the twentieth century, once advised, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”

Nonagenarian Iris Apfel must have missed that memo. Her motto is “More is more. And less is a bore.”

In Apfel’s world, more is decidedly, deliciously, decadently more. Whether that’s her enormous round signature glasses, brocades and bangles on her person, or decades of eclectic collectibles in her homes in New York and Palm Beach. Her fierce spirit and fantastic style are at the center of the recent documentary Iris, directed by Albert Maysles.

Maysles passed away earlier this year at the age of 88, and for his swan song he chose to celebrate this “Rare Bird of Fashion.”  Many of this prolific filmmaker’s earlier works included profiles of particularly colorful characters, from the two Edies of Grey Gardens to the Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter, as well as Marlon Brando, Orson Welles, the Beatles, and mononymous environmental artist Christo. Maysles’s final subject, Iris Apfel, is the darling of designers, a rock star of the fashion world, and a natural celebrity. In fact, the director didn’t need to do much here except record her supersized personality for us to enjoy.

Apfel was born in 1921 in Queens, the only child of Eastern European merchants. Her father’s family ran a glass business, while her immigrant mother owned a fashion boutique. She attended NYU for art history and went to art school in Wisconsin. Her early career included stints in interior design and illustration, as well as work at Women’s Wear Daily.

After marrying Carl Apfel in 1948 (she explains that she wanted to elope to save money, but her family wouldn’t have it), she and her new husband launched Old World Weavers, a textile business that specialized in custom, high-end, reproduction fabrics. Commissions included museums, society homes, and multiple restoration engagements at the White House. At one point in the movie, Carl jokes that working with Jackie Kennedy had its difficulties, but Iris quickly shushes him. The couple traveled extensively and Apfel began collecting artisanal clothing and jewelry. She was fearless in her own sense of fashion, combining couture and thrift store finds, pioneering blue jeans, and repurposing church vestments. “When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else,” she says. She became a familiar figure, and designers began looking to her for inspiration.

Apfel’s influence grew with her first museum exhibition. In 2005, the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art premiered “Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel.” As the Met’s Harold Koda explains, it was the result of a most fortuitous accident. A previously scheduled exhibition was cancelled on short notice and Koda was able to persuade Apfel to lend them some of her personal wardrobe. He later mused, “To dress this way, there has to be an educated visual sense. I keep thinking, ‘Don’t try this at home.’ ” Apfel herself might disagree. “It’s not intellectual,” she insists, “It’s all gut.” The exhibition was a tremendous success and traveled to the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach, the Nassau County Museum of Art, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

Much of the fun of watching Iris is getting a behind-the-scenes look at how Apfel constructs an outfit. “I like to do things as if I’m playing jazz,” she explains. Her signature look involves layers of texture and color and pattern. If one necklace is good, three are better. She often piles chunky bracelets up from her wrists to her elbows. One wonders how much weight she’s actually carrying. Although she uses a cane and sometimes a wheelchair, she’s impressively mobile and active, attending runway shows and premieres, and shopping as much as she can. Haggling with a shopkeeper in Harlem, she describes it to a young designer as her “fix,” and wishes she could do it every day.

Despite some truly beautiful pieces, there’s an irreverence and wit to Apfel’s look. “Life is gray and dull,” she observes, “You might as well have a little fun when you dress.” Her innate sense of humor also comes through in the film’s countless quips and quotes. She and her husband keep up a quick-witted banter reminiscent of the Borscht Belt comedians at Catskill resorts. He affectionately calls her his “child bride,” remarking on their disparity of age. After all, he celebrates his 100th birthday in the movie, while she’s a mere 93.

Sadly, Carl died last August, making their genuine fondness for each other seem that much sweeter. Together they enjoyed a rich life and—in case you were wondering—she sometimes chose his wardrobe too. But, most of all, they had great adventures. She may be best known for her outré outfits, but Apfel insists that “It’s better to be happy than well-dressed.”

Early in Iris, Apfel tells one of her favorite stories. When she was much younger, she was browsing through the racks at the famous discount emporium Loehmann’s. Its owner, Frieda Loehmann, came up to her. “Young lady, I’ve been watching you,” she said. “You’re not pretty, and you’ll never be pretty. But, it doesn’t matter. You have something much better. You have style.” There’s a wonderful message there. “Pretty” isn’t really within our control (and Apfel is very vocal about the downsides of plastic surgery). But, style is! Iris provides 90 minutes of inspiration — even if we haven’t the discretionary funds (or closet space, oy vey!) of its subject. “The point of getting dressed is it’s a creative experience. . . freedom of expression, of expressing yourself, is the most important thing.”

A bit too eclectic for mainstream audiences, Iris is available in special screenings at schools and museums. I was fortunate enough to see it at the Peabody Essex. (Its gift shop features jewelry donated from her own collection. But I found it a little tough to pay hundreds for some of her costume pieces after watching her haggle for them onscreen.)

Iris is also available on demand on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Watch it and then take a fresh look at your wardrobe. (That necklace that was too big, too bright, too gaudy may seem just right. Especially if you add another.)  Apfel’s over-the-top creativity is contagious.

 

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  • Andrea October 13, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    Great article about an extraordinary woman! Even though she was told she wasn’t beautiful I feel she was truly was.

    Reply
  • Toni Myers October 13, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    Alexandra, I love your piece. Can’t wait to see the film. I’ve
    been following Iris for awhile. What a role model!

    Reply
  • Shirley October 13, 2015 at 8:44 am

    Baddie Winkle, the 87 yr. old from my area, must be a follower. She dresses extravagantly and has been in the news lately also. Too bad more 80+ yr. olds don’t set a trend for us younger women.

    Reply