Iris Apfel

“When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else.”

Iris Apfel, American Textile Artist and Tastemaker, 1921-2024

A quintessential New Yorker, Iris Apfel’s exuberant, distinctive personal style made her a true American original. “The world’s oldest living teenager” and “geriatric starlet” were just two of Apfel’s self-given monikers, acknowledging in her own witty way that her fame came late in life.

She was known for her eclectic and original styling, pairing couture with flea market finds and layering multicoloured accessories, always with her signature outsize glasses. Apfel embodied the saying that people will never remember what you wore, but they will remember how you looked. “It’s not what you wear but how you wear it,” she wrote in her 2018 biography Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon.

Apfel’s  interest in fashion and textiles began early, when, as an only child, she was given bags of her aunt’s sewing scraps to play with. From the age of 11, she would take the subway into New York City from their family farm to shop for vintage jewellery, and remembered buying her first broach for 65 cents. 

Apfel studied art history at New York University and attended art school at the University of Wisconsin. She worked for Women's Wear Daily as a copy editor and interned for the interior designer Elinor Johnson. 

In 1948, she married Carl Apfel. They launched the textile firm Old World Weavers two years later and ran it until they retired in 1992. They travelled to Turkey, Morocco and Lebanon to source the best fabrics for their 17th and 18th century furniture reproductions and did design work at the White House under nine different administrations. Because they were so itinerant, the couple decided not to have children. But perhaps the most exciting part of the Iris Apfel story is what happened much, much later.

In a star-making turn, the curator of the Costume Institute at the Museum of Art in New York approached her when a scheduled show cancelled unexpectedly, and he needed something he could assemble – stat! She agreed, and in 2005, "Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel" would catapult Apfel’s clothing and jewellery, collected since she was a pre-teen, into the public eye, making her the style icon she is known as today.

Apfel’s career in fashion continued in 2011 when she was tapped to create a limited collection for MAC cosmetics – at the tender age of 90. The same year she developed a line of bold, colourful jewellery for the Home Shopping Network. Her beloved husband died in 2015 at the age of 100, the same year they starred in the Emmy-nominated documentary, Iris.

Apfel has graced the pages of Vogue Italia (photographed by Bruce Weber), and, at 91 years old, was Dazed's oldest cover star. In 2019, at the age of 97, she was signed by prestigious global modelling agency IMG. Apfel never retired. In 2021, after celebrating her 100th birthday, she told People magazine: "At 100, what else is there to do except sit around? I don't play bridge. I don't play golf. I love to work, and I really enjoy what I do." Apfel continued to live a busy, creative and fulfilling life until her death in 2024 at the age of 102.


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