The Rare Bird of Fashion. Iris Apfel.
Like a Clydesdale stomping criss-cross down the proverbial runway towards the box office, I was chomping at the bit in anticipation for Iris, the documentary about the life of fashion maven Iris Apfel. The late Albert Maysles who in 1975 famously gave us the gift that is Grey Gardens on a silver cat food tray directed the film. Mrs. Apfel carved a significant place in fashion history due to her renowned interior design skills and the incomparable textile company she co founded with husband Carl Apfel, Old World Weavers. For nearly 50 years, she traveled the globe searching for foreign goods to bring back to the states and recreated the most exquisite period fabrics ever produced, setting the luxury standard for textiles in America. Much of her work can be found in the homes of the wealthy elite including the White House. But it wasn’t until the unprecedented success of “Rara Avis,” a Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibition featuring Mrs. Apfel’s personal collection of clothing and accessories in 2005; that the general public got a glimpse of the woman behind the fabric. More like a master class in living life to the fullest than a movie, Iris captures the true spirit of curiosity and humor—two things Mrs. Apfel considers to be essential components of happiness.
Unlike other fashion movies of its kind, which often substantiate the popular opinion that all fashion people are vapid, out-of-touch morons, one of the more pleasant things about watching the film is discovering how down-to-earth Iris is. Instead of pretension there is humility; instead of judgment and elitism there is acceptance. She garners inspiration from a broad spectrum of typical and atypical sources; from the Paris fashion houses to the Harlem bargain stores selling rhinestone trinkets, which she admires just as much as her Harry Winston jewelry if not more. Watching her sift through a rack or a bin with discerning confidence and determination, like a miner examining murky water for gold, you can see her genius hard at work. The term “trailblazing” is grossly overused and assigned to undeserving people all the time, but in the case of Iris, it appropriately describes what her 93 years of life have all been about. She epitomizes fearlessness in her expression of self, revering color and improvisation of style, which she compares to Jazz. “Color is so important, color can raise the dead,” she exclaims. At one point she draws a comparison between the church ladies of Harlem and the fashionistas of downtown Manhattan, pointing out her distaste for the homogenized all-in-black uniform collectively considered “chic,” in the downtown scene. In her opinion, the church ladies with their vibrant colors and big hats are the one’s with real style, “big, bold and lots of pizzazz!”
Her technique is similar to an architect only she uses unconventional building materials like rare fabrics and glass beads to erect her structures. When she accessorizes a look, she tells a multi-faceted story honoring the history of each piece, and what it communicates as an ensemble. She encourages the viewer to look at fashion more deeply, bringing our attention to how politics, social issues, and even science has influenced the fashion industry at any given period of time. But above all, she challenges people to have fun with fashion aptly touting, “life is gray and dull…you might as well amuse people.”
Sharp and lucid, the Apfel’s charm us with their wit, generosity of spirit and whimsical good nature. A self-proclaimed cheapskate, the audience chuckles at this Park Ave to Palm Beach homeowner haggling with vendors over a couple of bucks, always eager to make a deal. Whether you see Iris for the unbelievable clothing or the equally dazzling accessories, or the 60-plus-year marriage at the center of the film, (which appears to be filled with love and mutual contentment,) you will leave feeling liberated to be more of who you truly are despite the pervasive trend of blending in.