“Clearly she relishes—while being a little bemused by—her emergence as a venerated style guru. “People write to me: ‘You’ve changed my life!’” She pauses for a minute, bending over to adjust a passementerie-covered throw pillow before affirming, “I’m giving them permission to be individual again.” Iris Apfel
If her distinctive fashion sense attracted her first clients when she set up her own design firm after the war’s end (“I guess people thought if I could decorate myself I could decorate a room or two,” she comments), it was her eye for unique furnishings and objects, as well as her facility with color and texture, that brought her instant success. “I don’t do run-of-the-mill stuff,” she says, “and I don’t do minimal.” Apfel doesn’t compromise either…”
(photographed by Roger Davies)
There’s a Q&A by Mitchell Owens accompanying the article. Here’s an excerpt with the beloved clotheshorse and former interior designer about fashion and personal style.
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.
CHECK OUT THE FULL INTERVIEW HERE