Iris Apfel will tell you that she doesn’t like pretty. That may seem like a bold statement from a self-proclaimed geriatric starlet. But then again, as the Queens-born daughter of Jewish parents asks, how many 93-year-old cover girls do you know? A model, a jewelry designer, and a collector, Apfel is now the star of Albert Maysles’s documentary film, “Iris.”
But this success is bittersweet. Maysles, whose documentary subjects included Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the Dalai Lama, and the Rolling Stones, died in March at the age of 88, and this is his last completed film. Maysles is probably best known for “Grey Gardens,” the film he made with his brother David Maysles. That film concerns the two Edies — mother and daughter —who lived in an oceanfront East Hampton mansion that had gone to seed. The film went on to become a cult classic among the fashion set, and the subject of a Broadway musical and a TV movie. With “Iris,” Maysles, known for his cinéma vérité style, revisits the world of fashion through one American original.
“Fashionista is a small part of my business,” Apfel says of her current line of work. “I design jewelry for the Home Shopping Network, cosmetics for MAC, I teach in the University of Texas, Austin development program. I’m a big sensation; I found that nobody knows history. Fashion is a big umbrella; nobody teaches about licensing, trend forecasting. This is hard work, but I love it.”
Though she was already well known, much respected and often quoted, in 2005 everything changed when The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, premiered the exhibition “Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel.” In the film, the Met’s Harold Koda explains that a previously planned show was cancelled in late summer, and Apfel filled the gap. The show was supposed to display only her jewelry collection, but soon grew to include fashion as well. The Met had never before done a one-woman show and the result was a huge hit, featuring Apfel’s signature layered bangles and neckpieces over designer dresses or street finds. Bergdorf Goodman exhibited her look in their windows.
Maysles’s film follows Apfel shopping on the street in Harlem as she haggles with vendors, and to her lectures and television appearances. The film is filled with her bon mots, and her old school wisdom feels fresh: “Life is gray and drab. You might as well have fun when you dress and amuse people.” And, “I couldn’t be friends with anyone who is not curious or doesn’t have a sense of humor.”
On another level, though, Maysles’s film is also a portrait of a long, childless and successful marriage that has endured since 1948. Maysles documented Iris Apfel’s husband Carl Apfel’s 100th birthday party. You see New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham snapping shots in the background. “Very talented wife,” Carl Apfel says of Iris Apfel. “I think I’ll keep her.”
Regina Weinreich co-produced and directed the documentary, “Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider.”
This story "Why Iris Apfel is a 'Big Sensation'" was written by Regina Weinreich.