Remembering Iris Apfel; Accidental Icon and Self-Dubbed Geriatric Starlet, 1921-2024

Read an excerpt from Iris Apfel’s memoir that is just as authentic and vivacious as she was.

three images of iris apfel in funky outfits
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  • Photo Credit: Beauty & Photo: Blue Illusion Fall/Winter 2016/Photograph by Daniela Federici / John Huba/Art + Commerce

On March 1, 2024, designer Iris Apfel passed away at the age of 102.

Outspoken, flamboyant, and a huge fan of oversized glasses, Iris Apfel was the perfect candidate to write a book with her featured musings, anecdotes, and observations on all matters of life and style. Though age 96 at the time of the book’s release, neither Iris’ style nor influence was slowing down, earning her nearly 1 million followers on social media, and many followers offline. 

Though she was born into a time where authenticity was a foreign matter to most, Iris never let it get her down. She adjusted well to the decline of manners and took risks willingly, which allowed her to blossom into a witty, charismatic woman with an infectious energy that was only reinforced by her impeccable taste. 

But it wasn’t just her charm that catapulted her into fame—she did the work. A grand master in the world of textiles, fashion, and interior design, Iris cofounded Old World Weavers, an international textile manufacturing company that focused on reproducing antique fabrics, with her husband Carl. She was also a restoration consultant and fabric replicator for the White House for over nine presidential administrations. On a more personal note, her passions for worldwide travel and flea markets inspired her greatly, and contributed to her dynamic tastes. 

Her origins are comparatively humble to her career in the height of her fame, however. In 2005, she was the first living person (not designer) to have her clothing and accessories displayed at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This show was a successful catalyst for her career that gave her the opportunities to become a supermodel, muse, and collaborator with multiple world-renowned brands. Ten years later, in 2015, acclaimed director Albert Maysles released his final film, Iris, to a global audience, and it is now an Emmy Award Nominee. 

In Iris’ book, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon, readers get a taste of her classic, colorful originality. From the improvisational organization of the book to the astute and entertaining nature of her maxims, personal anecdotes, and essays on life and style, to the 180 multifaceted photos, illustrations, and never-before-published personal photographs and mementos, Iris’ style and virtues not only inspire, but also transcend time. 

Below, in a tribute to Iris following her passing, is an excerpt from Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon, so that she can continue to do what she did best: teach us how to live our truest, and most fashionable lives. 




Iris Apfel

By Iris Apfel

WITH A RING-A-DING-DING-DING from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in early spring 2005, a new chapter in my life began. Harold Koda, then the curator-in-charge at the Costume Institute, was on the line, making me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He wanted to do a small show of my fashion accessories and jewelry. The hitch was that it had to be completed within five months, or a nanosecond in the museum exhibition world, where shows are planned years in advance.

I agreed because I thought all I had to do was place my things in beautiful cases.

When Harold and the curatorial team visited me one morning to plan the show, he told me he had rethought the concept. To show accessories out of context didn’t make sense, said he, for the public would like to see what accessories could do for an outfit. Then he asked whether I would be willing to supply at least five outfits to “use as a canvas.” To be curatorially correct, he wanted to choose the outfits. My job would be to accessorize the mannequins as I would have accessorized myself sixty years ago or as I might wear them today with a new selection or a combination of the two.

“What do you have to show me?” he asked.

“What do you want to see?”

“Let me look, let me look.”

Little did they know they had just opened Pandora’s box. One closet led to another, and in the ensuing hours, we had peeked, pried, and pulled open every closet, every armoire, every drawer, every box, and every storage bin I owned. At one point, I even saw someone looking under the bed. Clothing seemed to gush from every direction. Things got so chaotic we finally had to buy ten pipe racks, push all the furniture aside in the apartment, and hang up all the possible candidates. By the end of the day, the surface had barely been scratched.

“We’ll be back tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow!” said Harold.

For several consecutive days after the selections were made, a truck arrived to pick up clothes. The final haul: about three hundred pieces plus hundreds of accessories. I’m sure if they’d had to pay for all that packing and shipping, they would’ve thought twice about how much they pulled! They were lucky I lived close by. In the end, the show exhibited more than eighty outfits and hundreds of accessories. I styled the mannequins myself.

When Rara Avis opened, I wasn’t known internationally like I am now, but that changed quickly. The exhibit went from a small show to a big one . . . to a blockbuster. The Met didn’t do any press-related material about me or display my photograph there. My nephew, Billy, went with different friends every weekend, then reported back with stories. He’d often hear people ask who I was. Once, he even heard someone say that I was dead, which wasn’t completely surprising, really, since this was the first time the Met had paid tribute to the style of a living woman who was not a fashion designer.

But when I heard that, I said, “Billy, do me a favor. The next time you hear somebody say that, just tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘My auntie is alive and well. She’s just walking around to save funeral expenses.’”

While the media coverage got the attention of a lot of fashion people, the real buzz began when my dear, dear friend, the late photographer and journalist Bill Cunningham, devoted his October 2, 2005, New York Times column On the Street to the show. He called it “In Her Image,” and his enthusiasm for the exhibit—“You needn’t fly to Europe to discover a marvelous, rare look at genuine style”—piqued everyone’s curiosity. After that, people came in droves, and from then on, it was all word of mouth. In her review of the show, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote, “Before multiculturalism was a word, Mrs. Apfel was wearing it.” I was stunned by the crowds and very flattered by the attention. I also figured once the show ended in January, that was going to be it. I’d be finished with the hoopla and go back to my old life.

Iris Apfel alongside two men at an event
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  • Photo Credit: CLINT SPAULDING/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

But all of a sudden, people on the street knew me. I became cool to some—or hot—however you want to put it, yet I was no different than I was fifty years before. After the show opened, I was invited that fall to speak at New York University’s fashion program. One designer got up and said, “Your show is wonderful. With it, you’ve given New York its loveliest Christmas present in years. And what has New York done for you?”

I blurted, “It’s made me a geriatric starlet.”

I’m not one for labels, but that one stuck and amuses me, perhaps because it’s self-applied.

AFTER THE MET EXHIBIT CLOSED, I was contacted by other curators who had seen the show and wanted to bring it to their own museums. Soon enough, Rara Avis hit the road. It ran for three months at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. The following year, it ran for four months at the Nassau County Museum of Art, in Roslyn Harbor, Long Island. But it really took flight in October 2009, when it opened at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

When the Norton came to me with the idea to do its own version of the exhibition, I was happy to oblige. And that wasn’t because I have a home in Palm Beach—the experience of accessorizing the looks at the Met was so thrilling that I couldn’t help but take the opportunity to do it again for a second iteration of the show, and again for a third. Whereas for the Met I only accessorized the looks, at the Norton, Nassau, and Peabody I designed and mounted the shows. No, I wasn’t lugging mannequins around, but the curators dressed them with my guidance. Not professional stylists themselves, they were happy to take my advice on where to place the mannequins, the clothes, and the accessories. I was really involved.

When I worked on the Peabody show, a curator there told me that my approach to dressing and accessorizing reminded her of improvisation—the basis of jazz. That made sense to me, as I’ve been a big jazz fan since I was a kid. I like to improvise. I like to jump in and do things that excite me without thinking about them excessively. I trust my instincts. I guess you could say I’ve lived a jazz life.

The Peabody will always hold a special place in my heart, not just because of its own excellent costume collection, but also because the curators there are now the custodians of my collection of accessories, clothes, and shoes. Every year since the show closed there, they have visited me and each time they come, we determine which pieces they are going to take with them back to the museum. Someday when I leave this earth, the Peabody Essex is going to have my full wardrobe—well, unless I change my mind.

SINCE THE SHOWS WRAPPED, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with a lot of wonderful creative people. I don’t have an agent or any person that is in charge. I don’t have a website and I don’t do social media, although I know people post pictures and drawings they’ve done of me.

Not only do I not do social media, I don’t approve of it. What I eat, what I’m doing, where I’m going—that’s nobody’s business. And I have a rule: I don’t do selfies—what better way to get sick than to have someone with a cold just stick their head up against yours and cough in your face?

At a dinner party several years ago, the host told me that she saw a photo on my Facebook page that caught her eye.

I said, “What’s Facebook? I have no such thing!”

The “yes, you dos” and “no, I don’ts” went on for ten minutes, until she summoned a laptop. I took a close look at “my” Facebook page and there in the lower left-hand corner was a picture of my husband, Carl. Underneath, the caption read: “This is my darling husband, Joey.” Well, I might not be the brightest candle on the cake, but I told my host that after sixty-some years of marriage, I thought I would know my husband’s name. It was only then that she believed me.

I’ve been told that I have more than six hundred thousand followers on Instagram as of this writing, which is crazy, but I have nothing to do with it. People tell me “my” page is fairly well curated. It is run by a lovely young woman named Parisa, who lives in Vienna. We’ve spoken a couple of times since I learned of her handiwork, but I have no idea where she gets the pictures. Like I say, this woman is lovely, and I’m flattered that people have posted things about me, but I personally have no interest in doing it myself.

I don’t give out my phone number, either, except to a select few, so nobody knows how to reach me. Somehow I still get calls from all over the world. They have found me through another source—through a museum, or by knowing someone who worked with me on a previous project, or from a mutual friend or someone else or something. People go through all kinds of shenanigans to find me, which is very nice, and it also lets me know they’re serious about interviewing me or collaborating on some sort of project. By the time they get to me, though, they are usually very relieved and a bit grumpy because it’s not like I’ve made it easy for them. But that’s not on purpose; technologically, I live in the late seventeenth century. When people ask if they can send me an email, I say, “No darling. You can’t do that. Send a pigeon. All I have is a quill and a candle.”

After Rara Avis opened at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, people kept telling me I was an overnight sensation.

“You’re right,” I would reply, “Except my overnight was seventy years!”

macy's merchandising with cartoon Iris saying "whatever!"
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  • Photo Credit: Macy's Merchandising Group Marketing & Creative Services in partnership with Snaps Media Inc.

Although I’m in my 90s, I still feel like I’m 5½ because I always look at the world like I’m discovering it for the first time. If I could remain one age forever, I wouldn’t. I don’t believe in that.

But if I could do a little time travel, I’d like to be in one of Gertrude Stein’s literary salons in Paris or attend a performance by the Ballets Russes, when Diaghilev was still staging the productions. I might like to stop in at the Harem in Istanbul during the eighteenth century. Then I’d stay right there but travel back to the sixth century, when it was still Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

Want to keep reading? Download Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon now.