Sunday, September 26, 2010

Role Model: Iris Apfel

Valerie says: Several months ago, Jessie Askenazi, a fashion blogger (check out Morning Passages) with an edgy eye who's young enough to be our daughter, asked us “Why do you think we hold back on celebrating our style as we age?" One of the answers I gave was that we have very few role models, given the fact that social independence, old age and widespread media coverage are all relatively new phenomena. If you think back historically on women trendsetters, most of them were young, wealthy and politically connected.

Queen Elizabeth the First (1533 – 1603) is one of the few women I can name who continued to lead fashion into old age, but then, who would have dared start a competing trend – and who would have paid more than a minute’s attention if anyone had?

Even now, although the editors of both Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue (left and right, respectively) are over fifty, they focus on fashion for the young, and are not arbiters of style for their own age group.

Recently, Iris Afpel was the featured speaker at the Textile Study Group of New York, and we had the good fortune to hear her talk at length about her style, her work, her collections and her views on fashion, all while slides of a fabulous array of her many looks flashed by on a large screen. At 89, she's a wonderful role model for women of a certain age.

If we repeated all the interesting things she said, it would take 30 minutes for you to read the blog. Since we know you’re busy people (plus, imagine how long it would take for us to write a 30 minute blog – we’re busy people too!), we’re just going to share our favorite nuggets with you, while studding the blog with fabulous photographs of her and her clothing.

First, in case you didn’t already know, Iris Apfel’s wardrobe has just finished traveling the museum circuit (under several names, including, among others, Rara Avis and Rare Bird of Fashion), starting in 2005 with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and ending recently with the Peabody Essex Museum. The exhibition curator, Stephane Houy-Towner, acted as her interviewer at the Textile Study Group in a lively exchange that lasted more than an hour. (Jean says: Although it was the first time I had ever attended one of the group's presentations, I was pleasantly surprised to know about a half dozen of the members.)

The idea for the exhibition began, Iris said, when Harold Koda asked to borrow some of her jewelry for a planned accessory show. But after the museum staff visited Iris’s home, Koda “rethought the concept”, Iris explained, and instead of showing several of her accessories, they showed eighty-two of her costumes (winnowed down from 300). (Jean says: Two summers ago, I organized a road trip to the Nassau County Museum to see the exhibition. I kept my eyes on the road but my ears on the conversation as I drove the Long Island Expressway to Roslyn Harbor and Valerie, Tziporah Salamon and our friend Bianca chatted up a storm. Although the clothes were in similar groupings to the show at the Metropolitan Museum, they looked very different in the more intimate Long Island mansion setting. I loved the fact that the show included not just the clothes themselves but also Iris' shoes, boots, handbags, gloves, luggage, hats, jewelry and eyewear. After the show, we went outside to a section of the formal gardens at the museum and had a champagne brunch (all the ingredients of which we brought ourselves) before heading home. Relax, dear readers -- as the designated driver, I was on my best behavior!)

Iris still has the first piece of junk jewelry she bought. It cost sixty-five cents – quite a bit of money at the time - and she was 11 years old. (Jean says: I love Iris' down to earth attitude. What she calls "junk" jewelry was what was referred to in D.C. as "costume" jewelry. Iris acknowledged that what used to be reasonably priced at flea markets and tag sales is now ridiculously expensive. Proudly announcing that she is 89 years old and has been making her own wardrobe decisions since childhood, she said she'd never be able to afford to assemble her collection if she started today.)

Iris has no interest in what she calls “real jewelry”, citing Harry Winston as an example. “I love ethnic jewelry”, she said. “It knocks me out.” One of the photos in her slide show consisted of several silver Tibetan prayer wheels studded with stones, which she wore as bracelets. Two other photos showed jewelry worn by cows and horses in India, both of which Iris has worn herself. (Jean says: She does have the tiniest wrists. The inner circumference of those prayer wheels couldn't have been more than 6" -- compared to about 8" for the average bakelite bracelet. They were also wide and thick -- much wider around than bagels, so they must have been quite a wristful for the diminutive Ms. Apfel!)

From the 1950s to the 1990s, Iris and her husband Carl owned and ran a textile business, Old World Weavers, which bought and commissioned textiles from mills worldwide using ages-old techniques. Business often took them to London and Paris. At the time, she explained, Christian missionaries who had lived in China and left after the 1913 revolution were selling the curiosities acquired during their service, and that was how they came onto the European market.

Iris told any number of wonderful anecdotes. Old World Weavers, she said, has “worked in the White House for at least nine presidents.” Contrary to popular belief, Jackie Kennedy “did not do the White House. She signed all the papers, but everything had to be historically correct.” As Iris pointed out, that power in the hands of whoever was in the White House at the time would have been a dangerous thing. “Can you imagine if Mamie Eisenhower…?” she trailed off. (Jean says: Iris was right that the Fine Arts Commission actually oversees White House furnishings, and made a point of the fact that Jackie's style was more French Imperial than American Colonial. In Mamie Eisenhower's defense, I would just like to point out that Mamie was a product of her times and was The Fifties personified. Since Elizabeth Arden was her good friend and provided her with wardrobe advice and hair cuts at her Red Door Salon, Ms. Arden should bear some of the blame for perpetuating Mamie's short-bangs hairdo and Harriet Nelson shirtwaist dresses.)

Of the old textile techniques, disappearing at an alarming rate in modern times, Iris said “We squandered a fortune because we didn’t want the old ways to go.” She mentioned paying for mills to take on apprentices so old techniques could be passed down. But most people would leave after a few months, she said. One left for a job with better hours. One mill owner, she said “ a fit of pique ... burned his own mill down.”

Iris is so immediately identified with her large round glasses that at Notorious and Notable exhibit currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York and in the Rara Avis show, the mannequins wearing her dresses are also wearing pairs of her own eyeglasses or replicas.

“I used to wear enormous hats”, she said. “It always cost me more to have the box made than the hat.” She explained that she doesn’t wear hats anymore because her glasses get in the way.

One imagines Iris has met everybody, and has all sorts of stories that it would be indiscreet to tell, but she did mention that one of her clients was Mrs. Marjorie Merriwether Post. Mrs. Post “had bad feet” because when she was a child she went around in all kinds of weather selling what would soon become Post cereal with her father, and had suffered frostbite. As an adult, Mrs. Post was married to the Ambassador to Russia, and she and her husband “went through Russia with a vacuum cleaner.” (Jean says: Now we know how Mrs. Post furnished Mar-a-Lago and Hillwood! Iris told a funny anecdote about the time that her husband had provided floor-to-ceiling draperies for one of Mrs. Post's ballrooms. Although she had numerous mansions, Mrs. Post never forgot her humble roots and selling Postum door-to-door. She called Mr. Apfel to say how beautiful the drapes were but, as she had actually climbed a tall ladder to count the tassels on each of the drapes, she wanted to know how many tassels there should be on each. Mr. Apfel's response was priceless: "Mrs. Post, I had a bowl of your company's cereal this morning. Can you tell me how many raisins were in the bowl?" )

Another client was Roberta di Camerino. Old World Weavers supplied material for an iconic di Camerino handbag. On one of her trips to Venice, Iris arrived at her hotel room only to find it “filled with flowers – it looked like they’d laid out some Mafioso”. It turned out the flowers were from Ms. di Camerino, in thanks for Old World Weavers’ role in the success of the bag.

At some of the Rara Avis venues, Iris put out pieces from her own jewelry collection for sale. So far she’s “sold well over a thousand pieces ... all things I bought to wear.” (Jean says: The Nassau County Museum's gift shop did have a selection of iris' bracelets, pendants and necklaces for sale, with the proceeds to benefit the museum. Bravo! Valerie adds: Wish we'd gotten there WEEKS earlier!)

When asked during the Q&A period whether she had ever made a system for finding her clothes, or whether one had arisen as a byproduct of the exhibition, she said no. Lacking a system, she said, things disappeared, only to turn up unexpectedly at some later time. Not being able to find what she wants doesn’t bother her, though, because finding something else inspires her to make different choices. Now, however, Pratt interns are in the process of archiving her collection. (Jean says: I'm going to use the fact that I don't have archivists as my excuse the next time I can't locate something I'd like to wear.)

On collecting, Iris says: “You can’t stop. It’s a terrible disease.” (Jean says: It was interesting that Mr. Houy-Towner corrected Iris and said she wan't a collector but rather was a consumer, since everything she bought, she wore. Iris agreed and shared the story of visiting an acquaintance who collected designer clothes but never wore them because it would diminish their value.)

On her own personal style: “I like architectural clothes that I can embellish.” (Jean says: Iris' motto ought to be "More is more." In response to a question from the audience about what she was wearing, Iris pulled up the sleeve of her grey striped jacket to reveal stacks of large resin bangle bracelets. She wore a necklace with a silver round Chinese Minority bauble and carried a walking stick that she hooked over the arm of her arm chair during her talk. Iris tends to favor large pieces of jewelry and wears her necklaces and chains in layers. She did mention that she has one necklace that is so heavy, she wears it while standing for only short periods of time at events before she has to sit down. She called it the "six minute necklace". She freely acknowledges that her jewelry can be noisy when different pieces clang together and told the story of a classmate once remarking that he used to look for her but then just listened for her instead.)

Iris also said she periodically gives away or sells things she knows she will no longer wear. When asked what she got rid of, she mentioned certain staple items that she replaced regularly, and other clothes that she had lost interest in. (Jean says: Iris donates her clothing to charitable thrift shops. I was tempted to raise my hand and ask "Which ones and during what months of the year?" but stifled the impulse.)

Like so many people, Iris has clothes that she doesn’t wear but can't bear to give away either. Of those, she said “They can have them when I’m dead.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Want more? Click here if you’d like to read a transcript of a conversation between Iris and Lisa Kosan, Editorial Director of the Peabody Essex Museum.

And click here for a five minute video on Iris, also put together by the Peabody Essex Museum.


  1. It is sad that fashion is so narrow in focus but like anything else it has to follow the market even if the demographics make the aging population numerically larger but that still isn't the perception.

    I think there is a a great deal of wonderful fashion out there for the older population but what strikes me in NYC is I see more age innapropriate clothing and way too much surgery as a substitute for good taste. Denial seems to have replaced grace and beauty. That is why I appreciate what you are doing, there is room to have flair and excitement no matter the age and not have to wear or be something we are not.

    Anyway, that is my two cents for the day, keep up the good fight and God Speed!

    ta ta for now

  2. what a wonderful description of the interview with Iris Apfel - and beautifully embellished with photos and history! Your narratives just keep getting better and better!
    It was a delight to share the evening with you!