This “Iris” isn’t the 2001 British-American bio pic about Irish novelist Iris Murdoch and her lover/partner John Bayley. This 2014 “Iris” is about the now 94-year-old Iris Apfel (née Iris Barrel), a Queens-born New Yorker who traveled the world with her husband Carl Apfel and became a style icon in high-society circles and earned greater fame and celebrity after the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured her in a September 2005 exhibit, “Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel.”
Early on we see the white-haired Iris behind her dark, large round-framed glasses that balance out Iris’ love for bright colors, interesting patterns and chunky jewelry that she mixes and matches.
“I like to improvise,” she explains, comparing it to music. “It’s like jazz.” Iris is also certain that “I like individuality” which she feels is “so lost these days.” In New York City, everyone seems to wear black and it almost becomes a uniform.
Iris was raised for fashion, saying, “I was very much influenced by my mother. My mother worshiped at the altar of accessories.” Her mother could wear a scarf in numerous ways and her mother advised to “buy a good simple little black dress” because “you can dress it up or dress it down” and Iris knows just how to do exactly that.
Iris discovered Loehmann’s. That now defunct store began with a single story in Brooklyn in 1921 and closed as a brick-and-mortar store in 2014 (after filing for bankruptcy in 2013). Frieda Loehmann was a former department store buyer who with her son Charles opened the first store by buying seasonal overstocks from New York designers and sold them at low, bargain prices. According to Iris, Frieda used to watch the floor from above and she “fixated on me.”
Then, Iris recalls, “One day she called me over.” and Loehmann said, “Young lady, I’ve been watching you. You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty. It don’t matter; you have style.”
When a planned exhibition fell through, the Met came up with the idea of showing Iris’ style, but in a way that showed all the possibilities. Due to the last-minute nature of the exhibition, there was almost no advertising budget and the exhibition depended largely on word-of-mouth according to curator in charge, Harold Koda.
Koda exclaimed, “We didn’t expect that it would be quite a phenomena that it was. The response was remarkable.”
The show which ran from Sept. 13 2005 to Jan. 22, 2006, at The Costume Institute included 40 objects that helped explore “the affinity between fashion and accessory designs and examining the power of dress and accessories to assert style above fashion, the individual above the collective” according to the original website summary.
The documentary shows just how extensive Iris Apfel’s personal collection is. It dominates whole apartments and rooms. The documentary includes clips such as when she’s appearing on a talk show: Iris is wearing a beautiful designer leather top that she’d bought for her husband, Carl; Carl is wearing some pretty wild pants.
Iris isn’t a style snob. She mixes high couture of Dior level with flea market finds and folk art jewelry. She mixes cultures–European high styles with African and Asian accessories. The documentary even follows her as she haggles over prices.
Iris love color, saying, “Color can raise the dead.” She notes that she was one of the first to wear jeans, recounting how hard it was to actually buy them and how she was told, “Don’t you know? Young ladies don’t wear jeans?”
Iris and Carl didn’t have children. Iris explains, “You can’t do everything. It’s impossible.” She wanted a career. She wanted to travel. She became an authority on antique fabrics and was consulted on numerous restoration projects that included work on the White House. With Carl, she founded Old World Weavers, an international textile manufacturing company. Now she’s famous for greatest creation: herself.
Iris shows that through her choices, her mixing and matching of different eras and cultures, through choosing style and presentation over displaying flesh, she was able to become a legend and even help give style tips to the young and the old. The moral of this documentary? Style lasts; youth doesn’t. Who should know better than the late documentarian Albert Maysles, who was 87 when he filmed this. It was his penultimate documentary.
The 90-minute documentary airs on Aug. 1 on POV (PBS). Check local listings. “Iris” is also available on Netflix.