Happy 100th Birthday to Accidental Fashion Icon Iris Apfel

Based, in part, on Apfel’s 92Y conversations with award-winning creator of New York Fashion Week, Fern Mallis

Iris Apfel, née Barrel, became a fashion icon in 2005 at the age of 84 when New York’s Metropolitan Museum mounted an exhibition called Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel. It was the museum’s first time showcasing clothing and accessories focused on a living person who wasn’t a designer. The exhibition was a roaring success and wry Mrs. Apfel, never short of an opinion, became a symbol of originality and glamorous longevity. The exhibition traveled.

Since then, Apfel has been a lecturer, visiting professor, fashion/style consultant, and model with multiple licensed fashion lines. There are several entertaining books about and by her. She’s the star of a wonderful 2014 documentary by Albert Maysles called Iris and in 2018, a Barbie doll was created in her image.

Iris Barrel was born in Manhattan, but uprooted almost immediately to a farm in Astoria, Queens because her grandfather was told he should move to the country for his health. Queensboro Bridge didn’t exist; the family hired a boat. Despite having law and accountancy degrees, her father opened a glass and mirror business. Mother Sadye, who “worshiped at the altar of accessories,” also went to law school, but would eventually own a boutique.  

“Every Thursday afternoon, I skipped school and explored a different part of Manhattan. I’d poke in all the shops. There was one in the Village, an Aladdin’s cave of a junk shop run by a short man in a monocle, frayed jacket and spats. I fixed on a brass brooch and kept going back to visit it. Finally I saved $.65. He wanted a dollar. We haggled and haggled. I finally got it and have it to this day.” The documentary shows an enormous collection of beautifully kept and catalogued wearables in the Apfel home. She probably has everything purchased since the brooch.

Twelve year-old Iris needed an outfit to go to the Easter Parade. Since her mother was working, she was given $25 to go shopping alone. “It was a fortune. Mama went to S. Klein on the Square (Union Square) so I started out there.” She fell in love with a $12.95 dress but wary of buying the first thing, in fact, taught even then to comparison shop, she went uptown to B. Altman’s and Best’s. Not finding anything she liked better at the price, Iris raced back downtown and bought the first dress. Next stop was A.S. Beck for a pair of $3.98 shoes. “I got myself a bonnet and still had money for lunch,” she recalls proudly.

Iris’ first glimpse of exotic travel came with her father’s buying trips abroad. Before the war, people were parting with treasured possessions for ready cash. Mr. Barrel would apparently return with boxes and boxes of objects unrelated to business, furnishing trousseaux for all his sisters. “I guess it gave me the bug.” The so-called bug was not only for travel, but for off the beaten track buying. Iris collects stuffed animals, toys, anything that strikes her aesthetic fancy. In Palm Beach, her home boasts a bar inside the stomach of a life-sized ostrich carved out of wood. Kermit the Frog hangs on her neck. We’re told he’s a secret lush.

After studying Art History at NYU, Iris transferred to The University of Wisconsin for the teaching degree her grandma said she should have to fall back on. “So they dumped me in the education department. That was a tragedy.” She wanted to be a fashion journalist and got a copy girl job at Women’s Wear Daily. “My job was to take things from desk one to desk 12 for the magnificent sum of $15 a week. After four months, I realized I wasn’t going to get any place because all the women editors were too old to become pregnant and too young to die.” Next came an assistant job to fashion illustrator Robert Goodman, then one to interior designer Elinor Johnson. “My heart was never in contemporary design, though, so I went out on my own.”

In 1947, Iris met Carl Apfel on the first vacation she could pay for herself – at Lake George. “He told my friend I’d be very attractive if I had my nose fixed so I wasn’t very enamored of him.” “I guess Carl got over your nose,” Mallis suggests. “Maybe something happened to his eyes,” Iris quips. The Apfels were married 68 years. (He died in 2015.) Carl worked with his father furnishing art and photography for advertising.

“I was decorating a beautiful house on Long Island and needed a fabric that didn’t exist,” she remembers frowning a little. The father of a girl with whom she’d gone to school owned a weaving business. Iris brought him her sketch. He liked it and agreed to make the fabric. “In those days you could run off just a few yards.” After producing several more of her designs, he suggested that she, Carl and himself go into business. They founded New World Weavers.

At first it was a tough road. “Major Brunschwig (Brunschwig & Fils) was a war hero and had France sewn up.” Iris cleverly agreed to let weaving houses sell her original designs abroad if they’d make the fabric for her to use/sell in the U.S. “In those days, there were tons and tons of beautiful flea markets. We decided to do only replicas. That took us on a lot of travels.” The company opened a showroom in a walk-up on 57th Street. Only Marjorie Merriweather Post (the Apfels supplied upholstery for all her houses) arrived upstairs without complaint. She wore sneakers.

“We were working on Hillwood (a Post home in Washington, D.C). The phone rings. ‘This is Mrs. Merriweather Post. I must speak to Mr. Apfel. Last night draperies were installed…’ She was calling from atop an 18-foot ladder. We’d done everything for her- swags, festoons, passementarie – what could have gone wrong? Carl picked up the phone. ‘I’m trying to find out how many silk balls there are in a running foot,’ she said. Carl thought for a moment and replied, ‘Mrs. Post, I eat your Raisin Bran. Will you please tell me how many raisins I have in a bowl?’ She said, ‘Touche Mr. Apfel…’”

Iris Apfel and Fern Mallis

Mallis asks about Old World Weavers White House successive restorations. “The First lady I liked best was Mrs. Nixon. Originally being a JCPenney customer, she knew nothing, but was very interested. She came along (with Secret Service) to buy a lot of the fabric. We let her play. One day she took a big bag of samples back home. In the morning, she realized they were all wrong.” And Mrs. Kennedy? Evidently a committee did that decoration. Being unduly influenced by French style, much was replaced after the President moved on.

The Apfels took extensive side excursions when on buying trips. Iris reveled in indigenous, ethnic cloth as well as clothing, sometimes having apparel made from fabric created for alternate purposes. “My husband used to say I took a piece of fabric and listened to its threads.” She’s as avid in junk shops and street markets as she is in shops, perhaps more so. Known for outrageous combinations of prints and colors as well as wearing dozens of bracelets and mulriple necklaces, she’s always had the surety to wear what she likes. “If you don’t know yourself, you’ll never have great style. You’ll never really live. To me, the worst fashion faux pas is to look in the mirror, and not see yourself.” Mallis asks about packing for Florida where Iris has a second home.  “Oh, I don’t do it in one swoop. There’s no train big enough to carry it all. I send my cases by truck both ways.”

Iris Apfel’s energy and enthusiasm/joie de vie create a role model beyond her unique fashion sense. “Fashion you can buy, but style you possess. The key to style is learning who you are, which takes years. There’s no how-to road map to style. It’s about self expression and, above all, attitude.”

All unattributed quotes are Iris Apfel

Photos Courtesy of the 92Y

Fern Mallis- Fashion Icons at the Y


About Alix Cohen (1352 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.