96-year–old IRIS APFEL is a fashion legend. In an era when even Hollywood stars are slaves to stylists and opinionated editors who want all of us to conform, this New York idiosyncratic doyenne is one of the last truly original, most fabulous dressed women around. Her large crammed Manhattan home is packed full of vintage pieces, designer clothing, and treasures that she has picked up in thrift stores. She combines chic with cheap. Everything she wears is big, bold and totally stunning, and always topped off with her signature oversized glasses. She was married to her late centenarian husband Carl for 67 years she has such an enthusiastic energy and pulse for living, and which was so beautifully captured in an enchanting documentary portrait by the late Albert Maysles.
This week Mattel honored her with her very own Iris Apfel Barbie doll, and earlier this month, she published a rather fabulous memoir Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon: Memoirs of a Geriatric Starlet. To celebrate both of this and this remarkable woman too, queerguru re-publishes our interview that we conducted one afternoon with the Lady herself. It was in 2015 at the Miami Film Festival on the eve of the opening of Maysles documentary, an occasion we will never ever forget.
Queerguru: Your mother once told you to buy a simple black dress, as you would always have something to wear. However, it looks from the clothes that you actually wear that you simply ignored her, and in fact, you say in the movie that “black is not a style, it’s a uniform.”
Iris Apfel: No, I didn’t disagree with my mother, as that was good basic training she gave me. What my mother meant was that I should have a good architectural piece of clothing that didn’t have any embellishment. One that I could wear to the office in the morning, and then go straight out to a black tie affair at night by simply just changing accessories. My mother worshiped at the altar of the accessory.
QG: How old were you when your sense of style manifested itself, and when did it evolve into the Iris Apfel look?
IA: As far as I know it always was there. My family told me that when I was a kid of about four or five years old (but I don’t remember) we were spending the summer at a resort. My mother used to take great pleasure in dressing me every night and she would always concoct an outfit. She had a kind of an orange crate, which I would stand on top of as she dressed me. One particular night all of a sudden people came rushing into the room because I was howling and screaming and carrying on like a banshee as if my mother were going at me with an axe. They were desperate to know what happened. It seems that my mother took a hair ribbon and made a big bow out of it and went to put it in my hair. I kept screaming “it doesn’t match, it doesn’t match”, stamping my feet and carrying on. Now all these years later I realize that Mom was so right as I hate matchy matchy, but in those days I was just horrified. (laughs)
QC: What was the most exciting thing about fashion in those very early days when you were still traveling the globe for your interior design business?
IA: It was so exciting because there was such an enormous amount of creativity. Balenciaga was alive and I had friends in the fashion business who would take me to all the openings in Paris, and it was really so exuberant. Then it was like something new with these bursts of creativity and genius, most of which are all finished now.
QG: After the success of the exhibition of your clothes and jewelry at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005 you became an octogenarian starlet, and so many more doors were opened to you, what was the favorite one? Being a Visiting Professor perhaps?
IA: Actually I called myself a geriatric starlet. They were all very nice as I like doors a lot. I collect doors too. (laughs)
IA: At first I didn’t want to do it and turned it down flat. Then I had a long talk with Linda Fargo (Senior VP at Bergdorf Goodman) and she said that I must be out of my cotton-picking head as people would just drop dead to have Albert Maysles even take a still photograph and he wants to do a documentary of you! I really didn’t think anybody would care about a film about me as I wasn’t very well known and I didn’t have anything to sell. However Albert convinced me, and I’m very glad I did it, as it was a wonderful experience he was a really wonderful guy. We shall all miss him so much.
QG: What do you think of the movie now?
IA: I haven’t actually seen it yet. But if I don’t like it, there is no one to complain to about it now. (laughs)
QG: You said in the movie that you believe that it is better to be happy than well dressed.
IA: Absolutely. I think fashion is just part of my life and if it hadn’t been fashion then it would have been something else. I was so worried about the film that I would come across as some empty-headed fashionista.
QG: Well you didn’t.
Thank God for that because they’re so many empty-headed people in the fashion business who take themselves way too seriously and I don’t think I am at all like one of them. To me, there are lots more important things in the world than just having the right shoes!
I think that if you have to work very hard at dressing up and it makes you nervous or uptight, then you won’t look very well because you won’t be comfortable. I think it’s much better to be comfortable and happy than well dressed, don’t you?
QG: Absolutely. You value individuality and curiosity so highly
IA: Oh yes…
QG: Then how would you encourage people nowadays to be just that, when things are so mass marketed?
IA: First you have to know who you are. That is the most important thing as if you don’t know who you are you will either get swallowed up or you follow some unsuitable trends and just become a nonentity. It’s not easy to know who you are and it’s very painful and takes a lot of time and that is why a lot of people don’t want to put in the effort. However, if you don’t have any individuality and you’re happy just being one of the girls (or boys) be my guest. I’m not the fashion police. I won’t fault you.
QG: One of the most touching aspects of your life in the film is your marriage to your husband Carl who celebrated his 100th birthday this year.
IA: It was sixty-seven years together a couple of weeks ago.
QG: Wow! Congratulations. What is your secret to having such a happy relationship?
Having a sense of humor and giving one another space: your own space. I’m delighted that gay people now want to get married and I say why not! It’s nobody’s business and I would happily give my blessing