A week before I am due to fly out of London to meet Iris Apfel, there appears to be a problem. Mrs Apfel is not at her home in Palm Beach, Florida, as originally thought. Mrs Apfel is in New York. Doing a quick mental map of where I’ll spend my free time during my trip to the Big Apple, I tell my editor I’ll be flying somewhere different. “No worries at all!” I write in an email to the publicist handling Iris, a new documentary film about Apfel’s life. “These things happen.” But a few days later I receive another email. The plans are once again abandoned. “Where is she now?” I write. The PR does a virtual shrug. She’s somewhere in Europe. A few days later I’m given the number of Apfel’s mobile. Mrs Apfel, it turns out, is in Barcelona, attending a fashion week in the city. What she wants to know is: where am I?
Twenty-four hours later I’m on a plane, wondering how easy it would be to microchip a 93-year-old. Isn’t it supposed to be difficult for old people to get travel insurance? There was definitely some sort of conversation with my late grandmother about her always having to go to Cornwall. But if there is one thing I have learned from watching a film documenting the last three years in Apfel’s life (age 90 to 93), it is that Iris Apfel doesn’t give a hoot. This woman is a law unto herself.
Charmingly rude, brilliantly abrupt, wearing gigantic owlish glasses and necklaces that look like pythons sliding around her oesophagus, Apfel is the kind of rare nonagenarian people want to keep hold of. The next day, while she’s having her photos taken at Barcelona’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, I can tell that she thinks she’s got me all figured out. When we are in the lift going up to her hotel suite, she takes me by the arm. “You must speak up for yourself!” she scolds. She is talking about the photo shoot. “Don’t stand back, have some creative direction!” she says, suddenly sounding very New Yawk. Never mind that I’m a writer, I want to protest, or that she has just pretty much creatively directed the photo shoot herself. Our interview hasn’t even begun and I’m witnessing a prime-time slice of the real Iris Apfel. My God she’s a handful.
One of the many interesting things about Apfel (and there are many) is that before she was a fashion plate – or, as she likes to say, a “geriatric starlet” – the former interior designer was 83 years old and over a decade into her retirement. Thanks to a contract that saw her consult on interiors for the White House with her husband, the 100-year-old Carl Apfel, she was a little bit famous, known in New York interior-design circles. But as recalled in Iris, directed by the late Albert Maysles (whose other work includes the documentary Grey Gardens), it was a phone call in 2005 from Harold Koda, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, that would change life as Apfel knew it.
A late summer exhibition at the Met had been cancelled and Koda, looking for a last- minute replacement, had been suddenly struck by inspiration. Having heard that Apfel had one of the best wardrobes of costume jewellery in the United States, he called her up and asked her to create a show from her personal collection of vintage and designer accessories and clothes. What resulted wasRara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection, an exhibition that was unlike any other for two reasons: it was the only show of its kind at the Met that had focused on a living female who wasn’t a designer, and secondly, it was styled by Apfel, who dressed the mannequins according to the irreverent ways she wore the garments. The response was unprecedented. “I don’t know if there’s been any other show that’s relied so much on word-of-mouth,” Koda recalls. People loved Apfel’s wacky combinations, and virtually overnight a new fashion star was born.
Ten years on from that exhibition, Apfel’s career has never been more current. Last spring she was the face of two collections: one for Kate Spade, alongside the Victoria’s Secret model Karlie Kloss, and the other for jewellery designer Alexis Bittar – a campaign that saw her appear next to 19-year-old blogger Tavi Gevinson. Despite two hip operations – she underwent one after tripping over the hem of an Oscar de la Renta dress at a fashion shoot in Paris – she continues to grace countless fashion-magazine covers.
Although her outward crankiness and droll humour might tell you otherwise, Apfel says her twilight career has been a lifeline. “It’s been a godsend, in all honesty, because when I retired my social life was cut to shreds.” But grateful though she is for the attention (“It is lovely to be fussed about like this in my dotage”), she doesn’t necessarily believe her success – or rather the way she has been embraced – has anything to do with age. Her appeal, she believes, is a glamour that’s missing in modern life. “I go by the phone calls and the letters I receive from my fans, which are all kinds of people: six-year-old girls, young women, guys. And not just the gay guys, although I am what the gay guys love. But lots of straight guys, too. It’s interesting with the guys, because they tell me that they see things in the way I dress that they don’t see in their wives and girlfriends.” Like what? “Oh, fantasy,” she waves a hand. “Glamour, fantasy, humour, whimsy,” she decides, and then taps at my notepad. “Are you writing this down?”
But Apfel also thinks a large proportion of her fanbase isn’t even concerned with fashion. She shrugs, chomping on her chewing gum. “I think some people like me because I’m different. I don’t think like everybody else. People are so tied up in the worst parts of technology these days. They live a life pressing buttons. They don’t use their imaginations.”
In the many pages of dedications to her “Irisisms” on the internet, Apfel is loved for her no-nonsense attitude: the wisdom and humour she has gathered over the decades; the unsugared truths. Some of her most interesting views, I think, centre on ageism in fashion, an epidemic she dubs “insane”. Her main beef, she says, is that designer clothing is being made for 16- to 18-year-olds in the first place. “I mean, designers have dug their own graves,” she groans. “It’s demented, all these dresses for thousands of dollars, and the kids that age can’t even afford them. In America it has been proven that the bulk of spending money is in the hands of women between 60 and 80, so it’s so stupid. The people who do have the time and money to shop are either retired or empty-nesters.”
Of the questions she is asked by members of the public on a regular basis, the most frequent query comes from older women wondering where they can find interesting clothes that possess sleeves. “I think when you’re paying $15,000 for a dress you’re entitled to a pair of sleeves. It makes me crazy. Because everybody knows that older women, no matter how much of a jock you are, you look like a horse’s arse in a strappy dress. And that is not appropriate.”
She sighs. “And why they use these models who look 15… How can an older woman relate to a little kid running up and down the runway? You can’t.” She takes out her chewing gum, invigorated by the rant. “Excuse me,” she apologises, “but the gum is what usually keeps me awake.”
When she was a kid herself, Apfel says, she wasn’t pretty. “I wasn’t pretty when I got married either, and I never cared. I never liked pretty. I mean, it’s nice, don’t misunderstand me, but I never got upset. And I was quite glad in a way, because it put my mind to other things.” As a pre-teen, she was overweight. “I was very fat. Yes. I had a very bad sinus condition that only one doctor seemed able to cure with some kind of malt, so I gained a lot of weight, and it drove my poor mother crazy, because she was very elegant and she wanted me to be dolled.”
How big were you, I ask. “Oh big, big. I don’t know what size because my mother would just say: ‘Oh let’s get something violet!’ And we’d go out and she’d have it all planned in her head. But by the end of the day she’d be bedraggled and tell the assistants: ‘Oh just bring out anything that will fit her.’ But what I really didn’t like was that the salesgirls always used to ask me: ‘Why don’t you have a nice figure like your mother?’ I thought that was very nasty.”
“But anyway,” she continues, “we complained about it to the doctor and he said: ‘I guarantee there’ll be a point where she’ll be so thin you’ll have to worry about her.’” And was there? “Oh yes, it came to pass,” she says. “I mean, I’ve been 104lb [7st 4lb] before.”
I wonder if losing the weight might have made her more concerned with her appearance – or perhaps carrying the weight turned her to looking well in other ways – because by 12 years old she had become interested in clothes and jewellery and took what she describes as “a fancy to New York City”. Raised in Queens on a farm with her parents and grandparents, Apfel would take every Thursday afternoon off school to go to explore shops all over Manhattan. “At that time you could ride the whole subway system for a nickel, so each week I would take a different section of New York – Chinatown, Yorkville, Harlem, Greenwich Village. And I really fell in love with the Village,” she remembers. “The Village was where I started to poke around antique shops and become enchanted with all this old junk.”
After she’d graduated from university, Apfel got her first job as a copy editor onWomen’s Wear Daily, but before long she had taken an apprenticeship of sorts with an interior designer who tarted up apartments to make them marketable during the Second World War. It was then that she realised she had a talent for sourcing rarified pieces.
In 1948 she met Carl Apfel at a resort on Lake George in upstate New York. The following year they were married, and by 1950 the couple had started Old World Weavers, a company specialising in restorational furnishings, Iris being brilliant at sourcing the necessary fabrics. Her greatest talent, it seems, is shopping, and perhaps their greatest contract was the White House, where they served nine presidents. “It was a relatively easy job actually,” she recalls, “because everything had to be as close as humanly possible to the way it was.
“Well,” Iris adds, “until Mrs Kennedy came along. She employed a very famous Parisian designer to gussy up the house and make it a real Frenchie, and the design community went bananas. After that we had to throw it all out and start again. But I did like Mrs Nixon. She was lovely.”
The business meant that the Apfels travelled constantly, and it is for this reason, she says, they did not have children. “I don’t believe in a child having a nanny, so it wasn’t what we were going to do, but also having children is like protocol. You’re expected to. And I don’t like to be pigeonholed.”
So why, I find myself asking, are their apartments (in New York and Palm Beach) brimming with stuffed animals, children’s toys and year-round Christmas decorations? Apfel laughs. “We just like to have fun. And I think there’s a difference between being childish and keeping a quality that’s childlike. I’m very grown up in a lot of ways, but I think that’s so sad – it’s good to maintain a sense of wonder.”
In the documentary, you regularly see Apfel and her husband having a ball together, both tickled by the same sense of humour. But now Iris tells me, he is sick. “It’s a coronary issue,” she says. “It’s his birthday next month. He’ll be 101. So I’m hoping he can make it.”
Iris says Carl’s illness is a stark reminder that mortality will face them one day, but for now she can’t think about it. Just before the documentary was released in America, Albert Maysles, the director, died of cancer, and that was a “terrible shock” – Apfel did not even know he was ill. “Shock can kill you. Shock is terrible,” she says with great emphasis and it makes me wonder how she might cope if she does lose Carl, whether she could ever be prepared. “But what you’ve got to do is live in the present, which is what I have always done.”
On that note she starts to talk about shopping. “I’m a bargain hunter,” she says. Yesterday she bought four bags in a flea market and came back with change from $50. Today Barcelona’s El Cortes Inglés awaits.