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“Dressing should be fun. Life is short and life is grey, so you can easily dress yourself up, make yourself happy, and then you make other people happy,” says nonagenarian fashion icon Iris Apfel in a new documentary by Albert Maysles. Known for her colorful outfits that combine vibrant prints with armfuls of bangles, layers of chunky necklaces, and signature round glasses, Apfel embodies her own dictate to dress cheerfully and expressively.
Towards the beginning of Iris, Apfel recalls an episode from her 20s: while watching over customers at Loehmann’s, the founder of the department store tells her, “You’re not pretty, you’ll never be pretty, but you have something better: you have style.” Indeed, Apfel seems to possess an innate sense of how to match accessories and clothing to create combinations that are unusual and pleasing to the eye. She uses color and texture to build up wearable works of art, often in angular silhouettes and with humorous details like a bracelet made of googly eyes or a jean shirt with embroidered images of Mickey Mouse. One standout outfit revolves around the color blue, featuring a powder blue suit worn over a black turtleneck, geometric necklaces in lapis and seafoam, and a furry cerulean cross-body bag.
Some of the most enlightening sections of the film showcase Apfel’s serious attitude towards fashion and the deft ways in which she collaborates with museums. A 2005 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection, first brought her and her outfits to widespread public attention and acclaim. As she prepares displays from her collection for the Met, the Peabody Essex Museum, and the windows at Bergdorf Goodman, it becomes clear that Apfel and the museum curators share a vocabulary and an understanding of how to best display the clothing and jewelry to entice an audience. Though Apfel does not make her clothes herself, she is always on the lookout for new pieces at venues high and low, keeping in mind how additions will fit with the contents of her current collection. The combinations of disparate elements are hers, imbued with personality.
With her husband, Carl, Iris ran the textile company Old World Weavers from 1950 to 1992. Old World Weavers reproduced historic fabrics for use in upholstery and interior design and provided textiles for nine White House administrations. The Apfels’ round-the-world business trips, glimpsed in a jaunty montage, provided the occasion for many of Iris’s fashion purchases. Apfel also worked as an interior designer, and her Park Avenue and Palm Beach apartments burst with floral wallpaper in coral and chartreuse, potted ferns, and friendly bits of kitsch in the form of stuffed animals and model trains.
Director Albert Maysles, who with his late brother David filmed and directed such cinema verité classics as Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter, and Salesman, composed Iris in his characteristic meandering style. A character study rather than a narrative leading up to a culminating event, the film provides a view of Apfel not only as a privileged fashion icon, but also as a normal person with deep concerns about aging and the declining health of her beloved husband. Carl, who shares a tell-it-like-it-is sense of humor with his wife, celebrates his 100th birthday during the course of the film, and it’s clear that he and Iris have a loving and fulfilling partnership. “It’s not a dull marriage, I can tell you that,” he says at one point, smiling and relaxing outside of a dressing room while Iris models prospective purchases. Offsetting these happy moments are the couple’s comments about the challenges of aging — made more poignant by Maysles’s evident empathy, which comes through in the quieter tone of these sections and the director’s sporadic on-camera interactions with Iris. Maysles died at age 88 in March, after completing this film and the forthcoming In Transit.
The film makes the most of Apfel’s fast-paced life, including scenes of her hobnobbing at fashion galas with Kanye West and Jenna Lyons, taking photographs for the cover of Dazed magazine, and receiving the news that her face will appear on MAC shopping bags. The 93-year-old Apfel calls herself a “geriatric starlet,” and it’s gratifying to see such cultural admiration directed toward someone her age, with a salty personality and a seasoned sense of style, instead of the typical young model who serves as a mutable screen for a designer’s projections. The recent inclusion of women over 60 in fashion and cosmetics campaigns — including Joan Didion for Céline, Jessica Lange for Marc Jacobs Beauty, and Charlotte Rampling for NARS — hopefully signals a growing appreciation of life experience and a move away from marginalization based on age. As the film makes clear, Iris’s one-of-a-kind style was developed over time, through a life well lived.
Iris is playing in theaters across the country. See the website for details.