In the sea of black uniforms generally worn by most urbanites, clothing with color, print, and texture stands out. Iris Apfel is not one to be lost in the sea of all black, her eccentric styling sets her apart, whether downtown or uptown. Apfel’s exciting clothing and accessory collection brought her into the spotlight in 2005, with an exhibition at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rare Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection. To this day her aesthetic innovations continue to provide her with a platform for amazing projects: a Kate Spade campaign with Karlie Kloss, an Alexis Bittar campaign with Tavi Gevinson both in the spring of 2015 and the release of Albert Maysles documentary film about her, Iris was released in 2014.
Albert Maysles, who passed away in March 2015, is known for making documentaries with his brother David, most notably Salesman, Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens. Together they also shot several films documenting the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, including Valley Curtain and Running Fence. The brothers were champions of the cinéma vérité or direct cinema style of filmmaking, which involves filming using hand-held cameras, live, synchronous sound. An essential element is filming real people in uncontrolled situations. Jean-Luc Godard once referred to Albert Maysles as “the best American cameraman.”
Iris, Maysles’ last documentary, ran at the Siskel Film Center, from July 31 to August 6. It was one of the many fashion inspired films from 2014 that were screened at the Siskel Film Center. Others included Dior and I and Ari Seth Cohen’s documentary Advanced Style, which also paid homage to older fashion mavens, like Ilona Royce Smithkin, and Jacquie Tajah Murdock, who became the face of Lanvin.
The documentary takes the viewer on plenty of tours, of Apfel’s apartment at 480 Park Avenue, her home in Palm Beach, FL, and warehouses where many of her collections are stored. She collects everything from clothing and jewelry to antiques and kitsch. It is the sorting through, applying, modifying, and adjusting of select items from her collections that make people turn their heads when Iris walks into a room.
Apfel likens fashion to playing jazz, saying, “I like to improvise,” adding that there’s “so much sameness today.” The viewer is soon transported to Harlem, with Apfel being pushed along in her wheelchair by fashion designer, and friend Duro Olowu. The nonagenarian fashionista remarks about this contrast from the all black downtown uniform to the vibrancy of Harlem, for Apfel, “color can raise the dead.” In Harlem, she peruses African shops and haggles for bracelets, a talent she perfected from years of traveling with her husband Carl, hunting for textiles and art for their interior-design firm, Old World Weavers.
According to Apfel fashion is “all gut.” She cites her mother as a great influence who “worshipped at the altar of accessory.” It seems this love of accessory is hereditary as Iris’ petite frame is always adorned in layers of bangles, and necklaces; jewels of all shapes and colors complete her ensembles.
Apfel loves mixing high and low fashion enjoys shopping and finding treasures. She jokes to Olowu that she would love to get her fix at least once a week. But as most collectors, of clothing, records, jewelry, art, or most anything, can attest to, collecting is hard work. At 93, Apfel is still going strong, but she does not hesitate to remind the viewer of real concerns, saying, “Fashion never keeps me up at night, matters of health and things that like that do, things that are really important.”
There is much wisdom to be gleaned from this self-titled ‘geriatric starlet’. At the start of the film, Apfel recalls her early shopping experiences at the famed Loehmann’s, the discount fashion mecca that I’m still mourning the loss of. Founder Frieda Loehmann told Apfel, “You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. You have something much better. You have style.” Later, at the end of the film, Apfel remarks that she doesn’t like pretty which fades, and prefers being seen as interesting, and working to develop her sense of self.
It is this joy in interest and development of self that older women like Iris Apfel bring to the fashion world. Beauty is not synonymous with youth, and it is finally being recognized as something that is capable of growing with us rather than staying frozen in time. Women like Twiggy, Joni Mitchell, Joan Didion, Helen Mirren, Jessica Lange, Catherine Deneuve, and Anjelica Huston are appearing in recent fashion campaigns and empowering women of all ages to redefine their own beauty ideals and sense of self.