Iris Apfel, a retired businesswoman and fashion lover, rose to fame in 2005 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition celebrating her ability to transform herself into an otherworldly creature through clothes and accessories. It was a modest display housed in the Costume Institute, and it featured selections from her personal collection of fashion finds — both high-end and low — all put together by Iris herself. Called “Rara Avis,” it was a last-minute show after a planned exhibition had fallen through. There was very little in the way of promotion. But “Rara Avis” was a dynamic success: Visitors were captivated by the pleasure and confidence that a woman of a certain age displayed in the sometimes off-putting realm of fashion.
Apfel is now 93 and continues to find joy in self-presentation. Her ceaseless delight is captured in the documentary “Iris” by the late Albert Maysles, which opens in Washington on Friday. He films her at a host of fashion events looking marvelously eccentric and also chic. But he also captures her teaching a group of students from the University of Texas, trawling African-import stores in Harlem and celebrating the 100th birthday of her husband, Carl.
In the film, Apfel moves through her days with determination and enthusiasm. Her refusal to adopt a take-it-easy attitude seems to both amuse and concern her nephew. She is keen on pointing out that rousting herself from bed is not easy at her age but she does it nonetheless, believing that the moment she stops engaging the world with her aesthetics, wit and honesty, is the moment life ends. “Everything I have two of hurts,” she says in the film, stealing a line from a family friend. But a few hours at a flea market is better medicine than anything that comes in a child-proof bottle.
“The hustle and bustle, it’s like a shot,” she told The Washington Post in an interview.
In person, Apfel looks like a cross between a peacock and an owl. She has a plume of white hair, a slender physique and above-average height. She typically wears a pair of round, black-framed eyeglasses that have the circumference of a saucer. She dresses in colorful layers that are made up of everything from designer trousers to ecclesiastical robes, accessorized with layers of thick bracelets and necklaces that might be composed of tiny pin-prick amber beads or baubles the size of golf balls.
It is all worn with confident nonchalance — an upright carriage that says, “Well, of course.”
Such has been Apfel’s defining style all along. “I’m the same basic person as I was 70 years ago,” Apfel says with her distinctive Queens drawl as she fields a series of telephone interviews to promote the film. “My basic taste is the same.”
One could argue that fashion has come around to Apfel’s embrace of individuality. But it is also true that age gives her aesthtic greater resonance and authority. She is intrigued by fashion, and she refuses to let it put her out to pasture. Fashion presents all sorts of challenges for older women, and Apfel comes out the winner every time.
It isn’t easy. Consider one of the favorite stories in the world of glossy magazine: “How To Dress For Your Age.” It typically includes helpful style suggestions for women in their 20s, 30s, and on through the 60s. Perhaps there will be a brief nod to the ‘70s. But after that — nothing. Even though the average life expectancy of a white American woman is well into her 80s.
“You’re supposed to fade away,” Apfel says about having a fashion life after one’s 60s. “The fashion industry has done itself in by neglecting the 60- to 80-year-old market. They have the time and the economic resources. They want to go shopping.
“Fashion has this youth mania,” Apfel says. “But 70-year-old ladies don’t have 18-year-old bodies and 18-year-olds don’t have a 70-year-olds’ dollars.”
It is hard not to cheer Apfel for refusing to be ignored, refusing to be bullied out of fashion. And perhaps, she has had an impact. In her wake, fashion has celebrated (a few) older women. Several years ago, jewelry designer Alexis Bittar cast Joan Collins in his advertising campaign. His new ads star Apfel herself.
Céline featured writer Joan Didion, 80, in its recent advertisements. Saint Laurent used 71-year-old Joni Mitchell. And Barneys New York recently cast older models such as Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison and Stephanie Seymour in its “Better Than Ever” campaign.
Apfel’s infatuation with color, texture and embellishment was seeded by a stylish mother and nurtured by a long career in interior design, including a business she co-founded with her husband called Old World Weavers that specialized in contemporary interpretations of antique textiles. “You learn a lot about people’s lives,” Apfel says about her international trips scouring souks, les puces and bazaars for inspiration. “It’s not just dead merchandise,” she says. “It has a soul.”
Apfel finds online shopping dehumanizing. “I need to touch it, smell it. [Online] all that is gone,” she says. “But I guess people like it because it’s easy; it saves times. What do they do with all the time they’re trying to save?” Isn’t exploring other cultures, taking stock of human nature, defining ourselves worth our attention?
The film talks a lot about fashion and creativity and Apfel’s unique expression of it. And she is more than willing to lend a hand in helping some baffled young woman blend her personal quirkiness with a professional life that demands more reserve. There’s no finding yourself in fashion, Apfel warns. It’s a partnership and “you have to know who you are first.”
But the most powerful lesson that Apfel shares is about curiosity. That’s what feeds her aesthetic, but also what keeps her engaged. The lack of it, especially among the young, frustrates her. She tries to emphasize the value of curiosity when she talks to students — and Googling doesn’t count. “The young students are not properly taught. Or they’re lazy. The computer has ruined them. They equate curiosity with pressing a button,” Apfel says. “When I was a kid, I was very involved in the process of getting the answer [to a question.] They don’t understand that. I think the high-tech for the young kids is ruining them. They’re robbed of their imagination.”
For all of the attention to Apfel’s extravagant clothes and jewelry, “Iris” still feels spare and unadorned. Every now and then, there are moments when Apfel falls silent and the camera lingers on her face. A thousand emotions flicker across her face. Maysles doesn’t zoom in tight in a manner that would seem flamboyant and over-wrought.
A close-up isn’t required. Apfel isn’t one for elaborate makeup. She doesn’t go in for plastic surgery. Her life’s joys and sorrows, fears and mortality are written on her face. Her adventures and memories are contained in her wardrobe. “Iris” isn’t just a film about a woman’s extraordinary surface image, it is also an evocative film about ordinary woman’s full and deeply satisfying life.