New Member of the Tribal Council: Iris Apfel
As a child, Iris Barrel Apfel once had a screaming fit when her mother put a ribbon in her hair whose color didn’t match her outfit. So it comes as no surprise that the interior designer and co-founder of the textile house Old World Weavers grew up to become a fashion icon. “But I don’t like anything matchy-matchy anymore,” says the self-proclaimed geriatric starlet, who is prone to donning daredevil extravaganzas of pattern and color along with masses of clanking jewelry.
Apfel burst onto the international stage in 2005, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art put the octogenarian’s flamboyantly bohemian personal wardrobe—antique Chinese robes, haute-couture feathered coats, operatic necklaces, many of them made to her eccentric order—on display in its Costume Institute. And now she is literally taking her mix-master taste on the road, from advising fashion-school students to designing a forthcoming collection of costume jewelry.
Taking a break from stringing beads, Apfel—wearing pencil-slim blue jeans, a brilliantly embroidered Indian jacket, and armloads of rattling wood bracelets—sat down in her Manhattan apartment with Mitchell Owens, Architectural Digest’s special projects editor, for an afternoon chat. The topics of conversation? Everything from how fashion can be the most liberating thing around to why church vestments can make a most modern ensemble.
ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST: Some people, and I am not among them, find fashion talk to be foolishness. But you don’t.
IRIS APFEL: Clothes are not frippery. Properly done, they can be an art form. Throughout history clothes represented who you were; they are a great vehicle for explaining who you are. During the Ching dynasty, for example, what you wore and how it was made reflected your status in society. People could literally read your clothes like a book, just by its color and how it was embroidered.
AD: So what do your clothes reflect?
IA: Just me. I’ve never tried to be a rebel or upset anybody. I just figured if I pleased my husband, and my mother didn’t get upset, then I was okay. Fashion really is women’s liberation in a lot of ways. Look at how many women in this country are depressed about how they look and how they think they have to look! It’s really sad. And it’s not about money. People with a lot of money don’t dress as well as people who have to make do, who have to be inventive. Those are the people who are always more interestingly dressed, I think. Everything I do, I do with gut instinct. If I think too much, it won’t come out right.
AD: You’ve been dressing like this for more than 50 years; what is the reaction as you walk down the street?
IA: I never care much what people think. I honestly don’t; I don’t pay any attention to the fashion police. A lot of people, probably most people, dress for status, and think they are well dressed if they wear something that costs a lot of money. And they all want the same labels, so they all look alike, which I think is awful.
AD: Why do you prefer fake jewels to the real thing?
IA: My husband, Carl, is a very lucky man: Diamond necklaces don’t appeal to me at all. I prefer fun jewelry with big stones—so large they would be untouchable if they were real. Now, don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate Daddy Warbucks–size stones, like a big, flawed emerald. I love stones that are inherently flawed: rock crystal, turquoise with big veins. It’s like Rodin once said, “More beautiful than a beautiful thing is the ruin of a beautiful thing.” I think that’s a great observation, and most of the time so very true.
AD: You’re designing a costume-jewelry collection now; have you ever designed fashion or jewelry before?
IA: All my life I’ve done that, made things or had things made, both clothes and jewelry. I used to take those beige cardboard tubes that are used for masking tape and draw designs on them with black pens and wear them as bracelets. I have a whole collection of those. You can make all kinds of wonderful stuff. All you need is a little imagination. I don’t know what happens to people’s imaginations. We have it when we’re young, but so many lose it when we grow up.
AD: Well, it takes imagination to walk out of the house wearing a priest’s cassock, which you’ve done.
IA: Back in the ’50s, when I was in Paris on a buying trip, I found this positively beautiful ruby silk-velvet vestment at the flea market. It was like a big, floppy tunic, but stiff, and I put it on right away. I thought it was pretty swell. My husband started to scream, “I don’t want you in old clothes, people will think I can’t afford to dress you properly.” Really, he was carrying on like a madman. Just then Eugenia Sheppard, the fashion editor at The New York Herald Tribune, came waddling by, and she saw the vestment and said, “Isn’t this divine?” I asked if she would do me a favor: “Go and tell my husband.” And she did. So I bought it, and it was a sensation. I had some old silk velvet made into skinny trousers and ruby velvet shoes, and on top I wore a long string of turquoise beads.
AD: You have a big collection of Chinese robes, too.
IA: I have worn Chinese robes a lot and they were so cheap to buy. After the Revolution, French and English people who worked in China as missionaries or bankers left the country and took a lot of stuff home with them. Their children didn’t want them, I suppose, so I bought what I could find. I love Middle Eastern clothes too, especially Turkish things.
AD: But you have no problem with jeans.
IA: Only with what they cost. Have you seen the prices? Scandalous. I mean, yes, if they are embroidered or beaded or made special in some divine way, but honestly, jeans are jeans. I live in them most of the time, but I had a helluva time getting a pair of jeans around 1940, when I was at the University of Wisconsin. I thought I’d wear jeans, a turban, and some old earrings. So I went to an Army-Navy store, but you have to remember, back in those days, all the men in Wisconsin were the size of Paul Bunyan. Then the salesman told me, “Young ladies don’t wear jeans.” He wouldn’t sell me any or have them cut down. So I kept going back to the store, and they kept throwing me out, so to get rid of me, they finally ordered me some boys’ jeans. I love men’s jeans; they fit me better.