Iris Apfel: Forget The Clothes, Just Be Happy

Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

When legendary documentarian Albert Maysles first told style icon Iris Apfel he was interested in making a film about her, she told him: Thank you very much, but no thank you. She thought, “Who wanted to see a film about me?” But as soon as her friends candidly told her, “Who was I to deny Albert when most people would drop dead if he just took a still picture of them,” she put her reluctance aside. When the 88-year-old filmmaker, whose films like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter forever changed the shape of documentary filmmaking, finally met the 93-year-old beacon of fashion and individuality, the two instantly “fell in love and decided to make the film.”

As the second to last film made by Maysles, before his sudden passing on March 5, Iris is a fabulous and moving collaboration between two singular creative minds. His signature vérité filmmaking captures the vibrance and decorative beauty of her world, giving us an intimate portrait of an eternally hard-working, self-made maven. The film tells the story of Apfel’s incredible life, spanning from her days traveling around the world with her husband Carl while running their thriving textile company Old World Weavers to her rise to fame as an octogenarian starlet when her massive collection of clothing and jewelry first had its exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From “the rare bird of fashion,” whose unique sense of style defined her before she was ever in the public eye, we learn that it’s never simply the clothes that make the woman, but the woman that makes the clothes. 

To celebrate the start of Iris’ theatrical run beginning today, we chatted on the phone with the New York icon herself to find out more about the process of working with Maysles, her personal fashion advice, and whose style she admires.

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How did you and Albert Maysles collaborate on a daily basis? 

I did it all on blind faith. He would ask me what I was doing, I’d tell him, and if it sounded interesting he’d meet me there and we’d film it. There was no framework, no script, no nothing. I learned about him and took it all on blind faith. We filmed o and off for four years because he was away, then I broke my hips, and all these dopey things. But there was enough filmed footage to make three more films, so the editors just picked what they thought would work. Everybody seemed to like it, and I know Albert loved it. I was so happy for his last work. He went to his grave very, very contented.

Something I admire about you is that you’ve already dressed for yourself and what makes you happy, even before you were in the spotlight.

I hope I don’t offend anybody. I say if I do, it’s not because I’m a rebel but if they don’t like what I’m doing, it’s their problem, not mine. I’ve learned I have to please myself. I have so much, I don’t buy very much anymore. But I love to play around, so I’m constantly updating and mixing. I don’t dress up as much as I used to, but I like to put things together in my own way. I rarely see something that I don’t have a version of or that I really want. I still buy accessories and things like that, which for me, are way more important than the clothes. It’s hard to find any brand new excitement out there.

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You’ve said that style comes from your gut, that it’s not intellectualized, and yet you’re always aware of the history of what you’re wearing and the cultural significance of fashion from one era to another.

It’s very important to know about things. I don’t like to just have everything blank, I like to know where it come from and where it’s going. All these things have a soul, and they should be learned about. Kids today don’t care about that—and it shows.

Is there a correlation between the way you dress your homes and the way you dress yourself?

My clothes and my homes are all part of the same sensibility. I like to mix and match and change around. I like to keep old things. I like old friends and old memories and I like a lot of stuff. I’m not a minimalist, in case you didn’t notice.

As someone who has been influential to so many people, I’m curious whose style you admire?

Pauline de Rothschild and I admired Millicent Rogers. They were both very, very unusual ladies who lived unusual lives and dressed accordingly. I was very much taken with them. I was also influenced a lot by my mother who was very, very chic and accessory conscious. She taught me a lot.

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Do you find that you’re a different person when you’re dressed up or are you always the same Iris regardless of what you’re wearing.

Clothes are not a suit of armor for me. I’m the same person without my stuff. I’m not a fashionista; I don’t live to get dressed and I don’t get dressed over tie. If I’m at home, I’m in some jeans and a big shirt or a robe. I don’t work well when I’m dressed up. I like to dress up because it’s a creative experience. Getting dressed up to go to a party is often more fun than going to the party.

Your life has had so many chapters—is there something you’re most proud of accomplishing?

A lot of things. I’m proud of my project at the University of Texas and being able to do so much for the kids. I’m proud of my work with home shopping and being able to design ad get a lot of products out there that are affordable so that people who want these things are able to have them. I’m pleased. I don’t sit around and think about it, but I’m happy with what I’ve done and I try very hard. People half my age always tell me they can’t keep up with me. I’m getting tired. I’m really working like a fiend now—but I love it. It keeps me in this world and of this world.

What do you think is the key to personal style and what advice would you give to someone looking to define their own look?

It’s very hard to have fashion advice in the abstract. To develop style, you have to work on yourself and find out who you are and what you can handle. It’s all attitude, attitude, attitude and you to work at it, it doesn’t just come. If it’s too much work for you or upsets you or makes you uptight, I always say it’s better to be happy than well-dressed. You can look very pleasant, but you don’t have to be a standout if it’s going to make you nervous.

Lastly, can I ask what you’re wearing right now?

I’m wearing an old, red bathrobe.

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