Iris Apfel is an original. She’s got old school values, classic style, a progressive foundation and new age taste. She’s such a complex person, so down to earth and chic.
Iris has one of the largest collections of couture costume jewelry in the United States. She has clothing from all over the world, from all periods of time, and from all walks of life. Some times I felt that perhaps it may have not been appropriate that she’d casually wear a garment that would normally be worn by a culture’s priest or shaman, but for what it’s worth, she sincerely seems like she appreciates every piece of clothing that crosses her path. Especially considering that she most likely traveled to that remote village herself and was gifted it. She’s someone who would be just as likely seen in a high end runway show or in Paris boutiques as she would be seen in a small jewelry shop in Harlem or a market in China. Seeing her style mannequins, you can see 1) how much fun she has 2) how much care she takes with every item. I think part of this comes from her background in interior design and restoration, handling very unique items for clients as exclusive as the White House and stylish as Jackie Kennedy.
As a reflection of her personal style and design sense, her home is an eclectic compliment to her style and accessibility, cluttered but tastefully organized. Some times, she seems to border on tacky or cluttered, but somehow it seems like she knows just when to pull back. She’s such a quirky grandma, sweet, with curious she’s excited to show you. She’s 90 years old, still sharp as a whip and able-bodied–she seems in great health. She credits this to just keeping active, so she isn’t sitting home, aware of her aches and pains, brooding. Unfortunately, her husband passed away a year after the film, in 2015, at the age of 100. He too was a wonderful artist, and photographer.
She loves color, she rejects a lot of the current trends, saying that these sleek, all-black ensembles are more like uniforms than fashion. At the same time, she never dislikes outfits on others–I think she just is wise enough to know what suits her and to live and let live. She very cheekily says, “It’s better to be happy than well-dressed.” Damn, girl, so much shade. I think she hits on something here. Well, I mean, of course she does, but I think what sets her apart even more than what already sets her apart is that down-to-earth-ness. There’s such classism in fashion. Conversely, there’s an interest in vintage pieces. But Iris is the one that is actually there, digging through thrift store bins to find them. She’s someone who will pair designer fabrics with $5 Indonesian slippers and costume jewelry from a Brooklyn trunk show with bangles designed by Alexander Wang.
She had some choice words for designers today, saying they needed to get more into their craft and get their hands dirty: “They don’t show, they don’t drape, they’re media freaks. They have no sense of history, no curiosity about anything.” Iris realized early on that everything is inter-related, not jus within fashion, but with politics, economics, science, etc. and how so many factors are affected by all of these things…that you can tell so much about a period from a dress. When she teaches students, her course itinerary is always a bit different than expected:
“They’re all offbeat fields like licensing and styling, and things kids don’t think about as fashion. They just think its like glamorous but it’s important…all the great hand-crafted trades are going down the tube. Some of them are already gone. And then there’s nobody left to teach them and you’ll have all kinds of machine-made junk.”
Designer Naeem Khan advised students to keep their eyes out for everything, and told a story of seeing fields from an airplane and incorporated the pattern in one of his dresses. Finding inspiration, being curious about everything.
The whole time I was watching the documentary, I kept thinking about how much her personal growth would have been impacted from social media. I think her growing up without social media definitely assisted her, and removed a lot of the pressures that people today face. Everything, as she also laments, has become so homogenized. Something can look very Tumblr, there are distinct aesthetics on Instagram, lots of fashion bloggers rock the same trends, clothing stores have all melded and sell the exact same looking things. That being said, even if everyone took a page out of Iris’s book, she’d still be leagues apart from everyone else.
I likened Iris to Frida Kahlo a lot. Like. A lot. I’m sure Iris wouldn’t mind, having studied art history in college. They wore beautiful, unique, bold, colorful ensembles, created boldly and with disregard for trends, subverted expectations as women, never had kids, never aspired to be “traditionally” pretty or beautiful, and loved and experienced life deeply and widely. The list goes on, but so would this blog post.
Because I’m a giant nerd, I kept finding parallels with how she felt about fashion to the field of animation. Everyone nowadays tends to strive for the same styles. This isn’t a bad thing, nor is it even by choice. Like fashion, there are trends in animation. I’d love it if more students and even professional broke out of these molds. And of course, there are people who do it–I’m definitely not sitting here angrily typing “All animation looks the same!” because that’s just…not…true. It’s also the idea that anything from life can lead to benefiting the creation of animation, and that animation, like fashion, is a reflection of the science, politics, economics, technology, values, and so much more of that time period. These are two fields that are often sort of…snubbed? I guess, and seen as lesser artforms. People like Iris prove how untrue that idea is.
Iris is available on Netflix! Go have a watch!