Iris Apfel, renowned interior decorator turned style icon, and in her later years, mentor to young designers and fashion enthusiasts, brings more to the table than wild accessories and large-framed glasses. Her quirky sense of style and fearlessness to dress in a way that some would call over-the-top has given her a name in the fashion world, landing her on talk shows, HSN, features in museums and her own documentary.
Behind the glasses, Apfel embodies the importance of self confidence, individuality and being “pretty” in the world of fashion.
Even at 94 years old, she is heard before she is seen. Not because she moves with volume or is a boisterous talker. The clinking of her accessories is a tell tale sign that Iris Apfel is about to enter a room. It takes more than confidence to step out into New York City in the bold patterns and meticulously planned layers of costume jewelry that Apfel wears daily. For Apfel, it is not so much a disregard for what others think than a pure assurance in who she is and in her personal style.Apfel mentions repeatedly in her documentary, Iris, she never “planned” for this life, she just fell into it. When she saw opportunities to grow herself as a brand and as a person, she took them, often jumping blindly and learning as she went. She started as an interior designer and began designing fabrics when the pattern in her mind did not exist. Her textile company designed several White House restorations, from the Nixon’s to the Kennedy’s. From there, more doors opened leading her into the world of fashion and design, where she still reigns. Her outfits have appeared in Bergdorf Goodman windows on Fifth Avenue and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Department, bringing record crowds a sneak peak of her creative and glamorous mind.
Apfel, dubbed “The Rare Bird of Fashion,” developed her own personal style through traveling globally looking for eccentricities for her company and pieces for her own closet. She is characterized by large statement pieces, mostly necklaces and bangle bracelets of varying textures, patterns, origins and colors from her expeditions.
Pretty is a word thrown around in today’s magazines and Instagram captions, but what does it mean to be pretty? Is it professionally contoured cheekbones and sleek hair? Or is it something more? Apfel doesn’t believe that the word “pretty” carries any weight.
“All the girls that I know who were very pretty girls, and got by on their looks, as time went on and they faded they were nothing.” She says in the documentary, “And they were very disappointed.” Being characterized as “not pretty” never did, and never will, bother her. It simply pushed her to become something and create something of herself. Not being able to rely on looks for success created her success.
One day while shopping at Loehmann’s in New York, the owner approached her. “’Young lady, I’ve been watching you,’ she said to Apfel, as she recalls in the documentary. ‘You’re not pretty, and you’ll never be pretty. But, it doesn’t matter. You have something much better. You have style.’” As so often heard, there is a distinct difference between fashion and style. One is fleeting, and one is something intuitive.
Style isn’t simply buying the latest runway fashions and adding them to your closet. Apfel rarely indulges in runway styles, instead shopping in obscure stores in Harlem or vendors at flea markets for one-of-a-kind pieces that reflect her personality. These pieces are not easy to find, as she shows in the documentary cameras follow her around New York as she haggles vendors.
When someone is truly stylish, the seasonal changes of Fashion Week don’t give them a run for their money. Instead, they can use the trend of the season to accentuate the style they have already carved out for themselves. While Iris Apfel is often called an icon, it is important to remember that copying a person is not being stylish, as Apfel says in an interview with The Daily Beast in April 2015.
Originality and individuality are what separate the stylish from the poseurs.
“In the 40s, I was probably the first woman to wear jeans,” she says in the documentary. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if I had a big gingham turban and very large hoop earrings that I could wear with a nice crisp shirt and blue jeans?”
Although she had to fight for weeks to get her jeans, eventually she did. That’s the difference–the drive to embrace your own style and to break barriers with clothing and accessories–that is what makes a truly stylish person.