I remember the first time I saw a picture of Iris Apfel in a magazine. Her thick paste glasses and scrawny neck make her look like a rarefied owl draped in sumptuous fabrics. Her arms were heavy with bangles and she was wearing what seemed like hundreds of coordinating necklaces. I thought, “wow, this can’t be for real, someone must have dressed that woman up to look like that.”
After a bit of investigation I discovered who Apfel was. Now 93, Apfel was at one time a celebrated interior designer who along with her husband Carl, (101), worked on some of the best houses in the United States, including the White House. Although she was well-known in interior design circles, it was not until 2005 that she became known as a fashion icon. Harold Koda, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, had an exhibition that had fallen through at the last minute, and he contacted Apfel, knowing she had one of the best costume jewellery collections in the USA. This resulted in the exhibition Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection.
I recently watched the documentary, Iris, by Albert Maysles that displays Apfel’s creativity and imagination. This woman truly does not give a damn about what others think. She picks something up, she likes it, and she wears it with style. I love her attitude. The documentary is full of spinets that make great sound bites; Apfel is not only the doyenne of fashion and style, but also a witty, sharp and wise woman.
One of my favourite quotes in the documentary is:
“If you can’t be pretty, you have to learn to make yourself attractive. I found that all the pretty girls I went to high school with came to middle age as frumps, because they just got by with their pretty faces, so they never developed anything. They never learned how to be interesting. But if you are bereft of certain things, you have to make up for them in certain ways. Don’t you think?”
I think this is so true. As older people are fond of telling us, looks don’t last forever. You might be attractive when you are young, but eventually physical beauty fades, and if you have not cultivated your inner life, you will soon be seen as empty.I also like the fact that she is not put off by her age. She is proud and accepting of her age. She doesn’t try to hide it but uses it as an accessory. It is interesting that in a recent interview with The Guardian, Apfel commented on the glamour she believes is missing from modern life.
“I go by the phone calls and the letters I receive from my fans, which are all kinds of people: six-year-old girls, young women, guys. And not just the gay guys, although I am what the gay guys love. But lots of straight guys, too. It’s interesting with the guys, because they tell me that they see things in the way I dress that they don’t see in their wives and girlfriends.” Like what? “Oh, fantasy,” she waves a hand. “Glamour, fantasy, humour, whimsy,” […]
But Apfel also thinks a large proportion of her fanbase isn’t even concerned with fashion. She shrugs, chomping on her chewing gum. “I think some people like me because I’m different. I don’t think like everybody else. People are so tied up in the worst parts of technology these days. They live a life pressing buttons. They don’t use their imaginations.”
It is that sense of play, creativity and imagination that Apfel transmits that I love. She is so right, fashion today often seems to be like a uniform, where everyone wears the same thing, where designers make thousands from people who pay to wear their names stamped all over their clothes. I often ask myself what happened to individuality. Even hipsters, who in East London profess to be so different to everyone else, end up all looking the same. Apfel is precisely so delightful because she is different; a rare bird.
I view fashion as a tool that I use to express myself, not as something that should be imposed on me by magazines or trends. I generally wear good quality basics which I like to liven up with jewellery and scarves that I often acquire on my travels. I love unusual items. In London, I will often go to charity shops, particular favourites of mine are the ones near High Street Kensington. I like finding clothes that won’t be available on the high street. It is just like Apfel said “When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else.”
I have had several big influences when it comes to fashion and indeed life. There are others that I will not list here, but below are two of the strongest in my life. The first was my maternal grandmother, Alicia. She was originally from Bilbao, in the Basque Country. She often used to tell me stories about how she trained as a tailoress and seamstress and how her teacher would travel to Paris and London twice a year to get the best fabrics and latest fashions. My grandma also had an innate sense of style. Even to her last days when she wore pretty “grandma-esque” clothes, she exuded an indelible elegance.
The second influence was my great-great auntie, also on my mother’s side, who we called tia Rat (Short for Montserrat, a popular Catalan name). She was into her 90s when she died. I vaguely remember her dressing in colourful shift dresses, but it was her attitude more than her clothes that influenced me. She was a very strong willed woman. When in her 20s she was told by her father that she was to marry, she instead ran away and enrolled on a nursing course, becoming a nurse and health visitor and never marrying. She used to keep little notebooks where every day she noted a new word she had learnt, well into her old age. She never stopped moving and learning, even giving her body to medical research when she passed away.
These women taught me that style is about attitude, and about changing, of course what you wear comes into it, but it is more about who you are. Cultivating yourself to keep on growing is important. As Apfel says “If you don’t learn constantly, you don’t grow and you will wither. Too many people wither on the vine. Sure, it gets a little harder as you get older, but new experiences and new challenges keep it fresh.”