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The Schmooze

Inside Iris Apfel’s (Many) Closets

Age, fashion and wisdom fuel the late great filmmaker Albert Maysles’ documentary, “Iris,” a loving homage to Iris Apfel, the inimitable 94-year-old empress of style and chutzpah. Philosophically embellishing the subtext of fighting the clock while continuing to astound and surprise, Iris Apfel — in a sequence in which she is stacking so much jewelry shoulder to wrists that not a smidgen of skin can be seen — dishes a geyser of advice and credits her sense of style to her mother who “worshipped at the altar of accessories.”

I first encountered icon Apfel at the 2005 eye-popping “Rara Avis” [Iris Apfel, Rare Bird of Fashion] exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art which showcased her eclectic collection of spectacular massive necklaces and bracelets and wondrous wardrobe — garments she had collected during her years of world-wide travels with her husband Carl. Together they founded Old World Weavers, a unique textile firm specializing in antique fabrics and from 1948 to 1992 helped restore the fabrics of most major museum collections and were involved in White House restoration projects for nine presidents.

Got to chat with her again in June 2011 at the “Spirit of Achievement” Luncheon of the Women’s Division of Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine at which Apfel in a stunning black ensemble, her signature oversize owl glasses, and weighty multi strand black necklace mused: “I’ve become an overnight success after 70 years — a geriatric princess… I don’t fret about advancing age. The alternative is depressing.”

The film shadows Apfel on her shopping safaris to buy — and bargain for — accessories. It shows her 100-year-old beloved husband Carl, joshing: “That’s where my money goes — to buy my baby clothes.” As Iris tries on “stuff” for an Apfel window display montage at Bergdorf Goodman, she proclaims: “In the ‘40’s I was the first woman to wear jeans.” Disparaging current crop of designers she blurts out: “They don’t sew! They don’t drape! They are media freaks—no sense of history… curiosity.”

Among her many “hats,” a visiting professor at the University of Texas, she admits: “ I never had children…you can’t have everything. I could not abide my child being raised by a nanny.” Still, she exhibits a childlike sense of wonder. As you cut through the avalanche of joie de jewelry chatter about accessories there’s the burden of the massive amount of “stuff” that they have accumulated. And throughout, there is the drumbeat of “keeping busy.” As long as she is busy and “still vertical” she’s content.

Surveying a huge storage facility with shelves and racks of “stuff” being packed up, she laments not having the “courage” to part with her and Carl’s years’ long collections earlier. Each item has a history, and, just as suddenly, 94-year-old Apfel perks up and is enroute to her next project, challenge. This celebration of life and wardrobe opens April 29th.

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