Iris Apfel - An Icon of Style
One of the highlights to date of my career was interviewing Iris Apfel. She was a hard lady to track down - lots of agents, leads and publishers approached, before I finally got to the right contact. An interview was agreed, a time set up for me to talk with Iris, at her Palm Beach home and a 20 minute slot given. When we spoke she wryly told me that if I was prepared to persevere that far, I must be worth engaging with - I will be eternally grateful that she did. My 20 minutes turned into an hour and I will treasure that chat forever. A rare character in today's modern world and a voice that should be shared - so many precious stories and pearls of wisdom. So it feels fitting that the first of my TASTEMAKER posts, on The Authentic Home Journal should be this one, with Iris. Hope you enjoy reading her responses, as much I enjoyed listening and engaging with them.
At 98, Iris Apfel, defies all stereotypes of ageing and is revered amongst fashion and interior design aficionados’ as one of the true great style icons of our time. An acclaimed interior designer and business woman, Iris rose out of retirement to new found fame in 2005, when an exhibition, entitled ‘Rara Avis’ – Rare Bird, was curated by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, showcasing a collection of her own flamboyant outfits and accessories. The show, an overnight success, launched Iris onto the international stage, as a ‘geriatric starlet’ in the worlds of fashion, modelling, design, film, advertising and education. In an increasingly homogeneous society, Iris’s innate and infectious verve for original, unexpected, and real, epitomises the virtues of a life less ordinary.
Where is your home based in New York?
I live in a 3-bedroom, Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan. I moved here in 1978 with my late husband Carl and split my time between NYC and Palm Beach.
Did your early years help to shape your style?
My family were a big influence on me. I grew up an only child in Queens, New York: my father had a homeware import business and was always bringing home interesting pieces; my mother, owned a fashion boutique and loved dressing me up. As a child, I travelled internationally with my parents, long before it was the norm. I always felt like I was a sponge: absorbing everything, holding onto what I liked and getting rid of the excess somewhere else.
Do you see interiors and fashion as being inextricably linked?
For me it’s all part of your creative expression and aesthetic. If you are honest with yourself it is part of your being, so unless you are mimicking somebody you will find your natural style. I definitely dress and decorate with the same spirit.
Describe your New York apartment style?
It’s full of things I love and pieces collected over many years of international travel and buying, firstly for my interior design business and later as co-founder of Old World Weavers, our textile manufacturing company, that I ran with Carl until we retired in 1992. I am obsessed with colour, pattern and texture - when you walk in you know it’s my apartment.
As with your fashion style do you mix couture with junk shops finds at home?
Always – I have beautiful French, English and Italian antiques, but I love hunting out unique pieces in junkyards, fleamarkets and souks. Things don’t always have to be beautiful but they always have a powerful association with my life.
Where did your love of antiques come from?
As a child I played hooky on a Thursday to scour the junk shops of Manhattan. I could travel as far as I wanted on the Subway for a nickel and was obsessed with the hunt for unusual finds. I like to forage around and dig and scrape. I don’t get any kick out of going to a very beautiful, elegant shop where everything is preselected. I like to do it myself.
You have worked on some amazing design projects, including the redecoration of The White House for 9 Presidents and clients such as Greta Garbo and Estee Lauder. What was the best bit?
We had such an interesting group of people to work for who didn’t want to go showroom to showroom for the latest standard design pieces. If clients wanted to work with me I made them think uniquely - no two homes I designed ever looked alike – every space reflected the people who lived there.
What do you feel about interior design today?
So much décor today, although beautiful, looks like an exceedingly expensive suite in a grand hotel, but without any soul. I would rather have made a few mistakes in my time, than have created something so perfect that it feels obnoxious – but that’s just me.
As a fashion icon, you have always been ahead of your time: the first lady in NYC to wear jeans and long boots. Was the same true of your home design?
My home has always been a reflection of who I am. I dress myself and home to please me, I am not influenced by others and don’t take myself too seriously – humour is important. So many people look like they don’t belong in the background they are put into. If people constantly live in someone else’s image it doesn’t make for peace and happiness.
Do you move things around a lot at home?
I love to rearrange furniture and play with things, to see how they look with this or that. I don’t live in a static atmosphere.
Has your style at home evolved over the years?
I have always been a maximalist – I have never changed my approach to things, my style has just got more highly developed.
You are a big fan of Jazz – has that impacted your style?
Jazz is all about improvisation and drawing on different cultural influences. I have lots of multicultural pieces and love how marvellous they look mixed together in the most unexpected way. People seem to like that.
Secret to a happy home?
Happy inmates. If you not a happy person or happy with whom you live with you, then it won’t be a happy home.
Home – place for entertaining or a retreat?
I like to have people over but my privacy is everything. My husband was a darling – losing him has been a huge loss. I have always worked like a fiend but since he died I have been working day and night. I can’t stay at home and cry all day - he loved what I was doing and would have wanted me to carry on.
Would you consider leaving the contents of your home as a legacy for a permanent exhibition space?
Nobody has ever asked me or approached me, but it’s a very interesting thought, thank you so much.
How did it feel becoming a global style icon after the Met show?
Totally ridiculous and surreal - I still don’t believe it, it’s something I never ever expected. My husband loved it too, he was so encouraging - we would both laugh and laugh about it.
Why do you think you are so popular with the younger generation too?
I think there is a big hunger amongst young people for suitable role models. People are dying for old fashioned mystery and glamour, which has long since been wiped out of our vocabulary. I don’t think it will come back, so I guess my ways have an appeal.
Social media convert?
I don’t do social media, I abhor it and think it is a curse. Too many live vicariously through celebrities’ lives. We must have our own experiences, not simply press a button and enjoy someone else’s.
You have an Instagram page though?
It’s insane I have over 1.4m followers - people have taken pages in my name but it’s not me. I never look.
Letter or email?
Pigeon post! Technologically I am still living in the 17thcentury!
Do you find it hard to switch off?
I should relax more but my head is always buzzing with new ideas.
What type of people do you surround yourself with?
Always a very varied group - young, old, black, white, yellow, gay, straight. I don’t like living in any kind of ghetto, I like a mix. It’s hard to find the good ones but once you do you hang on to them.
What gets you up in the morning…
The big man upstairs – I am very grateful.
Best thing about getting old?
I don’t have to worry about how I look in a bikini.
The worst thing?
Knowing that time is passing and you don’t know how much time is left. That’s not very pleasant – I don’t like to think about it so I don’t.
Where do you find the energy for all you do at 98?
I work so hard, it’s all work, work, work - then an exhaustion attack. My time at Palm Beach recoups me and I start again.
Is the real Iris as flamboyant in private as in real life?
What you see is what you get. I haven’t changed since all this fame came my way. People say: ‘You are overnight sensation.’ I say yes but my overnight took 72 years to arrive!
The images shared are taken from the press articles written by me about Iris and are by hugely talented photographer, Roger Davies. Bottom portrait, by Luis Monteiro. Orange cape portrait, by Keith Major. As seen in Iris's book: Iris Apfel, Accidenttal Icon, £25, published by Harper Design. Black and white portrait from Assouline x Forty Five Ten 'The Eccentrics' Book.