Iris Apfel: A Rare Bird Flies on the Screen
By the end of dinner at London’s chic Annabel’s, Iris Apfel and I still weren’t done with counting her turquoise jewellery. The three thick bangles and two silver pieces on her left arm were easy enough, provided that the artistic excess was pushed away from the sleeve of the orange fur coat.
“I bought it in a sale,” said the queen of collectors, referring to the faux fur, but not to the necklaces. They came in hoops and swags and have been collected over the decades: big, bold pieces bought “years ago”. There were grape-like bundles and contrasting smooth stones – one of the necklets a recent gift “from Karl”.
I did not know until this moment that there were so many variations on turquoise stones, nor that they could be carved into such different shapes. But I did not ask for more details from Iris – “94 in two weeks”, as she put it in her drawn-out American accent. I had already learned from the screening of the documentary, “Iris”, by director Albert Maysles, that there were thousands more jewels, hundreds more outfits and dozens of furs – not to mention the funky shoes with embroidered illustrations, the stuffed animals and a myriad of objects in her Park Avenue apartment in New York.
All that – and another place in Palm Beach, Florida – is what she and her husband Carl, who turns 100 years old during the movie, call home. Iris says at one poignant moment that the couple had to choose between having children and building their business together.
“Iris” is a labour of love by the director, whose previous works have included the much-lauded “Grey Gardens”. Love is also the message of the documentary: the passion for objects and bargaining for them that took Iris and Carl across continents when they had an interior decoration company and founded Old World Weavers. The final pieces of their random collection of tables, velvet sofas, animal statues and oddity rugs and wallpapers are seen leaving the Apfel’s Manhattan storage bay during the film.
Then there is their touching love for each other, their sharp wit, the banter of nearly 70 years of marriage, their memories. There are also concerns for each other’s health, as he takes to a wheelchair and she deals with a broken hip. We don’t see Iris filmed on crutches, but you can be sure that they would have been carved from the mast of an ancient Mexican fishing boat and bought from a dealer in antique curios.
“I love souks,” said Iris with a sigh of joy, as she thought of travelling the seven seas in search of the original and the exceptional. Photographs following their many excursions across the world capture the daring of these architectural hunter-gatherers. Images also mark the duo’s more sober side, which included working at the White House under nine presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton.
The film opens – as the live screening in London did – with designer Duro Olowu supporting the nonagenarian. In London, he brought her on stage. In New York, he accompanied her to market stalls of African fabrics and accessories, where Iris bargains as fiercely as when she made her first purchase with 65 cents at age 13.
Iris described her mother as a conventional dresser, who passed on the idea to her daughter – “a child of the Depression” – that “If you brought a couple of good, architectural outfits and put your money into accessories, you could create a million different looks.”
Until her friend Harold Koda, now head of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, put her collection on display in 2005 as “Rara Avis” (a “rare bird of fashion”), Iris was unknown to the wider public. But by the time the film was made, the intelligent, lucid designer and collector was familiar for more than her oversize eye glasses and loaded-on costume jewellery, which she says give “zest and zing” to an outfit.
The clothes collection went on display from New York to Palm Beach, from Long Island to the Peabody Essex in Salem; each venue drawing a crowd overcome with fascination and awe.
Fashion films are currently all the rage, with Valentino’s “The Last Emperor” and the recent “Dior and I”, about designer Raf Simons’ first collection for the maison, both pulling in the crowds. In “Iris” there is the warmth of her photographer friend, Bruce Weber, and enthusiasm from Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten. Yet it seems more a story of character and originality than about clothes themselves, although Iris drops in a casual mention of a Gianni Versace skirt or a Ralph Rucci dress.
The appreciative audience in London included Roksanda Illincic, Nicky Haslam and accessories designer Charlotte Delal, who had by co-incidence chosen Iris Apfel’s trademark circular eyeglasses as her cruise collection theme. Picking up a bag with glasses frames as its handles, Iris Apfel posed for pictures. And she didn’t even try to beat down the price.
The film raises many questions. Why are there so few fashion originals in our world of digital reach? (Iris, unsurprisingly, uses her smart phone only for communicating and eschews all social media.) Could more films be made – perhaps not even at the high artistic level of Albert Maysles – to encourage fledgling designers to be bold and free?
Iris herself is seen talking to students, making her droll, sharp and intelligent comments about the art of collecting and wearing original objects. The students are perhaps the substitute children of this free-est of spirits.
Poster for Iris