iris apfel, 93 year-old it girl, doesn't do pretty

The self-proclaimed “geriatric starlet” is the subject of a new documentary by the iconic Albert Maysles, opening in theaters this week

by Clarke Rudick
24 April 2015, 3:00pm

Photography Kathy Lo

Iris Apfel's landline rings constantly during our hour-long interview at her apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

"Oh damn," she mumbles before excusing herself to answer the first call. "How are you doing, darling? Oh, me? Lousy."

She takes four calls and declines one in between slurps of matzo ball soup, each time apologizing for the interruption. "This is very quiet," she assures me.

You would think Apfel would be accustomed to more than her fair share of dinnertime interruptions. Since selling Old World Weavers, the fabric house specializing in discontinued textiles that she founded alongside her husband of more than 60 years, Carl, Apfel has emerged as a venerable design and fashion icon, due in no small part to her singular personal style.

"When it comes to fashion, I don't like rules," Apfel remarks. "They might be all right for other people, but I don't need them." A zany mish-mosh of antique jewelry and vintage clothing culled from her years scouring flea markets, souks, bazaars, and specialty stores around the world for rare fabrics, Apfel's imaginative outfits render the simple act of getting dressed a fantastical art form. And of course, she's never without her trademark oversized, rounded black glasses. "People would say, 'Why are you wearing such large glasses?'" Apfel recounts. "And I would say, 'The bigger to see you!' And that shut them up."

Consequently, in the past 10 years she has been the subject of a one-woman show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, collaborated on a range of makeup with MAC cosmetics, designed a line of clothing and accessories for the Home Shopping Network, starred in major ad campaigns (she's currently the face of Kate Spade and Alexis Bittar), and most recently, serves as the subject of a documentary film by the late Albert Maysles, Iris, opening in theaters this week.

Filmed over the course of four years, Iris is much more than the sum of its (albeit glamorous) parts. "That was my one fear doing the film: that I would come off as an empty headed fashionista. Thankfully I don't." Yes, Iris sits front row at runway shows, hobnobs with fashion friends like Jenna Lyons and Dries Van Noten, and peruses shop racks of vintage Moschino and Oscar de la Renta, but the film subtly reveals what's beneath her oftentimes feather coated exterior. "There was no script, there was no outline," Apfel explains of Maysles' signature cinema verite style. "I had absolutely no idea what the film was going to be. It was all done on blind faith."

Apfel is an admirer of fashion and a red carpet favorite, but she is also a loving wife and a devoted friend. She worries about her own health and that of her husband, retains a childlike fascination with stuffed animals, confronts gender stereotypes in her choice of dress (she maintains that she was one of the first women to wear jeans), and refers to herself as "not a pretty person."

Still, the self-proclaimed "geriatric starlet" has a hard time understanding her ever-burgeoning popularity. "They carry on about me, but I'm no different than I was 70 years ago," Apfel says. "I don't know, now I'm cool...I'm hot…"

When I ask her--half jokingly--if she still feels like a private person following the documentary's release, she immediately responds, "Yes. There's still a lot about me that's very private."

Surely someone who is truly private would never permit a documentary crew to follow them around for years? But Apfel is never obvious. Much like the women of Maysles' classic film, Grey Gardens, Apfel is captivating in both her intentional divergence from social norms, and her simultaneous disinterest in the attention that comes with living her life outside other's expectations. "I don't want to be a rebel, and I don't want to offend anybody," Apfel explains, "but I'm certainly not going to live in somebody else's image."

If she doesn't "do it for the likes" like the rest of us, what is she most proud of? "Lasting this long," she says plainly.

Another phone call is answered and ended, and Apfel once again refocuses. She rolls up the sleeves of her white terry cloth bathrobe to reveal two black bangles on either wrist. "I feel naked without them," she quips.

She is rubbing her arms gently when suddenly something clicks. "Oh I forgot to tell you, I'm going to write another book!" she says with excitement. "Just musings. Some one liners and essays, or photographs and sketches. I keep forgetting to tell people that!"

It's clear that the phone will only continue to ring, and Apfel will carry on her unique existence, uninhibited by other people's judgments and unaffected by fame. Hers is an extraordinary life, one colored in vibrant shades of neon yellow and turquoise, and soundtracked by the clinking of the many lucite bangles that pile up her slender forearms.

Iris (Magnolia Pictures) is out April 29th.


Text Clarke Rudick
Photography Kathy Lo

Albert Maysles
Iris Apfel
Kathy Lo
jenna lyons