The Eyes Have It – A Look Through Iris Apfel’s Iconic Lenses

Iris Apfel, the 96-year-old businesswoman and former interior and textile designer-turned-fashion and style icon is living her life to the fullest and simply refers to herself as an “accidental icon.” Apfel credits her iconic status to her creative approach to personal style. This caught the attention of Harold Koda, former curator of the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Koda, who describes Ms. Apfel’s eveningwear as having a “Fellini-esque theatricality,” curated and exhibited pieces from her extensive wardrobe and jewelry collections at THE MET in autumn of 2005, a few years following her retirement. The exhibition, Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection, traveled to several other institutions, including the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, and launched Apfel into immediate stardom as well as laid the path for a staid second career. Since then, Apfel’s star has continued to rise. She has designed an accessories line for Swarovski, collaborated with MAC Cosmetics, starred alongside supermodels Karley Kloss and Toni Garrn in respective campaigns for Kate Spade and Etienne Aigner, starred in a documentary, aptly titled “Iris” and penned a new book, Iris Apfel, Accidental Icon, Musings of a Geriatric Starlet (Harper Collins).

With a quick wit and a personality ten times the size of her trademark, enormous,  black framed glasses, it’s clear that Iris’ iconic status is anything but accidental.  How providential that the nonagenarian visionary is named “Iris,” which happens to be the most beautiful and ornate part of the eye- the iris allows light in. Her eyes and her eye are such a focal part of her life. In fact, she and her late husband, Carl were named inaugural Legacy Chairs of the 2015 Bascom Palmer Eye Institute Evening of Vision Gala, for their decades-long support of Bascom Palmer. 

The book begins and ends with the quotes: “In Wonder it Begins” – “In Wonder it Ends.” Everything in between, according to this guru of fashion, and of life for that matter, is to be celebrated.  “Life is a celebration! There is definitely no road map.  Embrace its glamour, enjoy its mystery, be open to the unexpected. Stop asking why…” 

Miami Socialholic caught up with Ms. Apfel via telephone shortly after her New York City book launch at Bergdorf Goodman and again on the eve of her South Florida book launch at J Nelson with Cultured Magazine, produced by Michael Kirkland in Hollywood Florida at South Florida Design Park to benefit Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.  What began as an interview to gain Apfel’s insights into fashion and design, turned into a spirited conversation about life, love, loss, the trouble with today’s youth and a tidbit on Barbara Bush. 

Why did you choose Bascom Palmer Eye Institute to receive the proceeds from your South Florida book launch at J Nelson?
I think Bascom Palmer does fantastic work and I’ve been connected with them for the last 30 years. They are considered to be the best in the country and in the world, so this was a natural choice for me.

Your followers are ageless in a sense – ranging from teens to those your own age and beyond.  What’s your advice for young people who look up to you?
To be honest with yourself, really get to know yourself and develop your own personality – then you can develop your own style. Not to be slavishly following trends and copying other people and living in somebody else’s image. That’s what I think.

From Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon by Iris Apfel; photograph of Iris Apfel by Roger Davies. Published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; © 2018 by Iris Apfel.

What about for those who are approaching a hundred?  Do you have different advice depending on how old a person is?
Just because you are a certain number doesn’t mean you have to go out to pasture.  Life is a wonderful thing and life is to be enjoyed and appreciated at all ages. You can do more at 20 than you can at 80; but there are still a lot of things you can do and you can enjoy them and understand them much better than you did when you were 20.   

Do you believe that “Youth is wasted on the young?”
No question, youth is wasted on the young! Nothing truer was ever said… I think most young people today are wasteful because they spend very little time improving themselves. They press a lot of buttons and think that pressing buttons is a way of life. It isn’t. They live vicariously through other people and get all of their sensations second or thirdhand and that’s not good.  There’s so much around them that’s totally unappreciated and they don’t do anything to develop an inner life, a spirit or a soul.  I don’t see how you can go through life this way.  They think they’re very curious because if they want to know something, they press a button to get an answer. This is not curiosity and it’s getting worse to the point I’m worried about it. Social media has ruined much of our younger generation.

What do you see as a remedy to this?
It’s simple – put an ax to some of those devices!

I find that with the South Florida heat it is hard to dress stylish because it is stifling outside. What’s your advice on dressing fashionably when it’s 100 degrees and your glasses fog from the humidity the second you walk out the door?
Don’t wear a lot of extraneous things.  Wear cool, breathable fabrics.  A lot of the fabrics today are synthetic, they don’t breathe and that makes you perspire.  If you stick to clothing made of linen or cotton it’s a big help.  It’s hard for me to say because I like to layer and wear a lot of stuff but you can’t wear so much around your neck if It’s hot and humid.

What’s your advice to someone on how to be fashionable who may be on a budget but wants to look good and dress fashionably?
Shop for simple, basic clothes and don’t follow every trend that comes along. When you get to know who you are, you get your own look. Get some good pieces and If you want to experiment with the “fast fashion stores,” of today, particularly if you’re on the younger side, you can really experiment.  In my time, it was a problem because everything was very expensive and you couldn’t play around. Also, try to plan what you’re buying. Don’t run to the register with the first thing you see. You can’t be  impulsive.

One of the worst fashion blunders is to look in the mirror and see someone else.  In other words, you look at the red carpet or on social media and see something that looks wonderful on a pretty young thing and think, “Oh, if I buy it, I’m gonna look like that.” But, trust me, you won’t! So you end up looking like a horse’s … [don’t quote me on that!] Let’s just say, “You’ll look foolish.”

How did those BIG glasses become your trademark?
People made them that way.  I don’t know. People have made me what I am- an “icon.” I never set out to do all these things. I had no plans for this.  This is the last thing in the world I ever thought I’d be doing in my dotage.  I fell into all of this. I’ve always been fascinated by spectacles. I just thought they were very interesting and attractive.  Even as a child, if I ever saw an interesting pair, I’d buy it and put it in a box.  Little by little they accumulated.  When I got to be a late teenager, I’d take them out and try them on.  I didn’t need glasses, thank goodness, so they had no lenses, they were just frames.  Every once in a while, I would put on the frames and wear them. I thought they were fun. So by the time I was 40, 50, whatever I was, and I needed glasses, I said, “Well, if I’m going to wear glasses, I’m going to wear GLASSES,” and I went to the box and took out the biggest pair I had and I had lenses put in them.  At that time, nobody was wearing large glasses (frames) and everyone just sort of looked at me as if I had two heads.  They used to ask me, “Why do you wear them so large?”  and I got bored with listening to all that so one day I said, “The bigger to see you,” and that shut them up.    But people always associated me with them I just wear them because I like them. I never branded myself, people have branded me.

Do you have more than one pair of the signature frames you wear?
Yes, I have several pair in different colors; but I wear the black ones almost all the time and I have a few back up pairs in black.

You have a fabulous jewelry collection on Home Shopping Network Do you have any new or upcoming collaborations you can share with us?
Yes. I am doing a line with a wonderful company in France called Bernardaud.  They do tableware and table tops-beautiful Limoges porcelains. They have asked me to do a collection of jewelry- big statement pieces made of porcelain. It’s been a very interesting project, we’re working on it now.

What do you look for when choosing accessories?
Well I look for a lot of “WOW” for me.  I do like large and oversized pieces, if you haven’t noticed –  I like things that are not standard equipment.  I like to put unusual things together in ways that are a little off-beat. 

Do you have a particular place where you like to shop or does your collection span everything from a garage-sale find to something that wasn’t intended to be a jewelry piece that you transformed?
No question. All of the above and I do a lot of shopping in my own closet these days.

IRIS AND CARL HORIZONTAL PORTRAIT from Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon by Iris Apfel; photograph of Iris Apfel by Bruce Weber. Published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; © 2018 by Iris Apfel.

Your 70-year love story with your beloved Carl is remarkable.

What are your secrets for a long happy marriage?
A sense of humor, number one. I don’t mean it as a “ha ha” sense of humor, but that helps. It’s not taking yourself too seriously. Most people who marry, today it’s all different so I can’t speak but, there was some kind of mutual understanding. Most people in my generation quarreled over silly things and it was so easy to blow them out of proportion.  You have to give each other enough space and realize that you’re two separate people, you’re not one and not try to operate and live as one. If you don’t like something, and your husband likes it, don’t tell him he can’t do it. Let him do it and you do something that you like. I’m sure there are plenty of things that you could do together and then every once in a while you do something that you’re not crazy about because he likes it and he does the same for you and you develop some kind of another relationship because of it. To say “We have to do everything together and everything the same,” is ridiculous. Everybody needs their own space.   We didn’t have any children because we wanted to travel and we had to travel for business and do all kinds of things.  My mother had to go back into business when I was 10 or 11 and it was just so traumatic. I decided I couldn’t do that and I didn’t want to give my children to a nanny to raise so we decided, “You can’t have everything,” and you make choices. Things happen for a reason. I often think that maybe I made a big mistake and I should have had children but you just live with what you decide.

Any advice for living in today’s world?

I’ve learned to live in the now. You don’t know what’s going to happen at any given moment and you certainly can’t do anything about the past so you might as well live in the NOW!  Not that these days we have too much control over the now, but most importantly live for today as much as you can.

What is your advice for raising children?
There must be discipline, everything starts with discipline – and that seems to be a dirty word these days. When I grew up there were rules and there was respect. Now kids just run wild and many parents seem to be afraid of them. Much of the time, parents want to be a friend to their children, and not a parent.

Speaking of people who were married more than 70 years, what are your thoughts on Barbara Bush, her style and her fake pearls?
I’ve always admired her. She was her own person and her fake pearls were big and fun. I never knew her personally, but she seemed to be an individual who commanded respect and seemed like a good lady.  I give her high marks, but high style wasn’t her strength. Arnold Scaasi dressed her for many occasions and some of the outfits he made- he should have been given a kick! Fashion wasn’t a big deal to her either. It’s not the most important thing in the world. If it makes you happy and you can have fun with it, I think it’s great but if you’re going to agonize over it- being stylish and fashionable and everything…it’s better to be happy than well dressed.  Do what makes you happy and comfortable. That’s the name of the game. That’s what I mean about not living in somebody else’s image and Barbara Bush certainly didn’t do this!

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I know your mother influenced you quite a bit, and you are, of course, considered a style icon. Who do you consider to be an influencer of personal style and fashion today?
I don’t look to anybody. Years ago, I looked to two women as I was growing up. One was Pauline de Rothschild and the other was Millicent Rogers who was the heiress to Standard Oil. They dressed beautifully, their own way, they didn’t follow any trends. They were really terrific. They were an influence on me but otherwise I don’t follow trends and at this stage I think it would be pretty sad if I had to follow anybody.  

Tell me about your average day.
Well, to begin with, I’d like to think that no day is average. Believe it or not, all I do is work, work, work- especially since my husband passed on. I’ve just had to because otherwise I’d just be a basket case. I feel very sad for people who don’t enjoy their work. I think it’s a savior.  It saved me. I know my husband would not have wanted me to sit home and cry all day.   We were together for 68 years.  We did everything together, so it was quite a blow. People ask me to events all the time. I like meeting people and seeing new things, but I most enjoy intimate dinners with close and long-time friends in New York and Palm Beach.

What did Carl think of your second career?
He was very, very instrumental in this second career that I have because he encouraged me to do all these things. I had to travel a lot and he was all for it. I think he was a kind of frustrated ham. He loved reading all my PR. He just loved it. I don’t even read it and he just went word for word. He just loved it.

Have you ever had a fashion faux pas?
I probably did but I always try to forget about unpleasant things.

Do you have a funny story to share?
I have so many funny stories and funny things happen to me all the time. People say I’m always telling stories and I look at things and try to see the humor in them. Remember, my new book is filled with stories from beginning to end – so read it!

***To make a contribution to Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, visit: http://bascompalmer.org/giving/gifts-of-cash

Instagram: @iris.apfel

Facebook: @Iris Apfel Official

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Produced by Michael Kirkland


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