Iris Apfel, designer who became ‘geriatric starlet’ in 80s, dies at 102


Iris Apfel, a New York textile designer, socialite and self-described “geriatric starlet” who became an unlikely fashion celebrity in her 80s for her outré style, died March 1 at her home in Palm Beach, Fla. She was 102.

Stu Loeser, a spokesman for her estate, confirmed her death in a statement but did not provide a specific cause.

Instantly recognizable for her trademark oversized, owlish spectacles, Mrs. Apfel became an improbable fashion star. She appeared regularly in the style pages of the New York Times, starred in advertising campaigns for Kate Spade and Coach handbags, was photographed by Bruce Weber for Italian Vogue magazine and was the subject of a documentary by the celebrated filmmaker Albert Maysles in 2014.

As she neared 90, Mrs. Apfel juggled multiple fashion lines, including a makeup collaboration with MAC Cosmetics — a beauty brand known for its unapologetically bold colors — a collection of eyeglasses for Eyebobs; and multiple handbag, accessory, fragrance and clothing lines, including a Home Shopping Network collection. She wrote a memoir, entitled “Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon,” in 2018.

Her dramatic, eclectic fashion taste won the admiration of designers such as Isaac Mizrahi, Jason Wu and Duro Olowu. She became a symbol of aging with audacious flair.

“Just because you get to a certain number doesn’t mean you have to roll up into a ball and wait for the grim reaper,” she told the London-based youth fashion and culture magazine Dazed in 2012.

Before 2005, Mrs. Apfel had a 42-year career as co-owner — with her husband, Carl Apfel — of a textile firm that designed fabrics for high-end clients, including first ladies and movie stars.

She burst onto the international fashion scene at 84, long into her retirement from the textile industry, after pieces from her personal wardrobe were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City.

Harold Koda, the Costume Institute’s director, had asked Mrs. Apfel to lend some jewelry from her collection for an exhibit about accessories.

“It didn’t start out as a fashion show,” Mrs. Apfel once said, “but he decided that to show accessories out of context didn’t make much sense, so he asked if I could spare maybe five outfits.”

He expanded the exhibit to include 82 outfits and more than 300 accessories. The show, titled “Rara Avis (Rare Bird): Selections From the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection,” displayed a juxtaposition of Mrs. Apfel’s high and low fashion finds — for example, vintage designer outfits matched with outlandish costume jewelry; opulent, antique Chinese robes adorned with whimsical flea-market goods; and luxury coats paired with feather boas and exotic trinkets.

As New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote, “Before multiculturalism was a word, Mrs. Apfel was wearing it.”

It was the first time the Met’s Costume Institute had honored an individual who wasn’t a fashion designer.

Her fashion pairings — and fearless personality — drew the attention of the fashion world.

“She has a look of excess. Everything is a little bit over-the-top, and yet it all works together,” said fashion historian Valerie Steele, museum director at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “She taught us you can be creative and fantastic at whatever stage in life you are.”

She reminded audiences that fashion, at its core, is an ageless form of individual creative expression.

“More is more, and less is a bore,” Mrs. Apfel would often quip to reporters. “When you don’t dress like everybody else, you don’t have to think like everybody else.”

Iris Barrel was born in Queens on Aug. 29, 1921. Her father owned a glass and mirror shop, and her Russian-born mother operated a boutique selling fashion accessories.

She grew to share her mother’s love of clothing, but her teenage figure was zaftig, causing salesladies to reprimand her, “Why don’t you be slim like your mother?” Her solution was to smoke up to four packs of cigarettes a day to control her appetite.

She graduated from the University of Wisconsin’s art school in 1943 and accepted a job as a $15-a-week copywriter at Women’s Wear Daily magazine after winning Vogue magazine’s Prix de Paris writing contest. She decided to leave the magazine when she realized the female editors were “too old to have babies and go on maternity leave and too young to die.”

Later, she worked for men’s fashion illustrator Robert Goodman, who paid her $35 a week — “more than all the different boys I went out with,” she once noted.

One of the men she dated was Carl Apfel, whom she met while vacationing at a resort in Upstate New York. She said he was smitten with her at first sight — except for her large nose. When he suggested she get a nose job, she told him to “go fly a kite.” He liked her moxie, and they wed in 1948.

In 1950, they formed Old World Weavers, which specialized in reproductions of antique fabrics. Iris was creative director, and Carl managed the business and mechanics of the company. Clients included the retired movie star Greta Garbo, makeup tycoon Estee Lauder, etiquette maven Emily Post and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who gave the pair their first White House commission in the early 1960s.

They would go on to complete nine White House historical restorations before selling the business to Stark Carpet Co. in 1992. They continued as consultants with the company until 2010. Her husband died in 2015, at 100.

Mrs. Apfel encouraged people to make daring but suitable choices on fashion and makeup, often using her waspish wit to discourage bad taste.

“I can’t tell people how to have style. No amount of money can buy you style,” she told the Sunday Telegraph, a British publication. “It’s just instinctive … You have to learn who you are first, and that’s painful.”

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