“IRIS” is a documentary about Iris Apfel, a 93-year-old fashion icon and style chameleon. The film opens with Apfel telling us how she dresses herself on a daily basis. While dressed in mix-match prints and donning an abundance of bracelets, Iris pointedly proclaims, “I like individuality — it’s so lost these days, so much sameness … I hate it … whatever.” Directed by 88-year-old Albert Maysles (“Grey Gardens”), this documentary aspires to tell the extravagant life, ceaseless creativity and style inspiration of Iris Apfel.
Apfel was born in 1921 in Queens, New York to business-oriented parents. Her dad owned a glass and mirror business, and her mother ran a fashion boutique. Inspired by the likes of her parents, and after marrying Carl Apfel, the couple launched a textile business, Old World Weavers. Century-old fabrics served as inspiration for the intricately vintage-esque styles created by the Apfels. The couple retired in 1992 and sold the textile firm to Stark, which now sells carpets, rugs, fabrics and furnishings.
Iris’s phone rings, showing that despite her old age, she stays busy. She undertakes many activities, such as dressing women at the local Loehmann’s, talking to students from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising and dressing her husband Carl in a studded snapback in Florida.
Old World Weavers and the travel-heavy lifestyle transcended not only her career, but also her style. Cultural pieces from around the world, bright colors and loud prints continue to inspire Iris on a daily basis. She is seen throughout the entire documentary wearing extravagant outfits, full of color, rare furs, jeweled in armfuls of bracelets and heavily layered necklaces, all topped off with her iconic thick circular glasses. Iris’ vast wardrobe — accumulated from thrifting, bargaining and gifting from top designers — takes up nearly two rooms in her Manhattan apartment.
As someone who tends to shy away from colors and find aesthetic as being the most important, I can’t relate or see myself wearing what Iris does, but I wholeheartedly respect her. It takes a certain coolness and skill to dress the way she does. Though at first glance Iris’s style is an overwhelming abundance of color and prints, her style is something completely her own. Yes, Iris may be in her 90s, but her style has recently taken a dive into mainstream society because individuality stands valued in fashion — and Iris’s style is definitely all about uniqueness. It takes more than just clothes to be stylish; most important is confidence.
Due to her fame in the fashion world and recognizable style, Iris’s wardrobe has been displayed in numerous museums in fantastical ways. Her art exhibition has stood in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; Roslyn, New York’s Nassau County Museum, West Palm Beach’s Norton Museum of Art and Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum (where Iris has donated nearly 600 pieces from her wardrobe). These shows take a worldly approach to Iris’s exotic fashion sense by situating the mannequins dressed in her clothing in various settings from around the world. My favorite display was at the Met, where curators put all animal-print-inspired pieces in one area among a plastic tiger wearing the Iris-signature glasses.
The documentary makes particular note of the Apfels’ ailing health. Personally, I was under the impression that the movie would purely be about fashion and her unique style. However, during filming, Iris had hip surgery, and Carl was in and out of the hospital. The couple is slowly selling and giving away some of their prized possessions and clothing items accumulated during their world travels. The ever-present notion of death isn’t uncalled for, as Carl Apfel died shortly after the documentary was released, a couple days shy of what would have been his 101st birthday.
“IRIS” brings forth a more personal look into the life of Iris Apfel. Although she is most known for her eccentric style and fashion choices, to which the documentary pays adequate tribute to, the film shows that Iris is a quick-witted, well-traveled and intelligent woman whose creativity has inspired countless people. In today’s society where beautiful, young models are plastered all over billboards and magazines, it’s important to remember that fashion and style have no age limit. At 93, despite the ever-present health issues in her life, Iris Apfel is just as hip, stylish and unique as any top model today.