Conversation with Iris Apfel

Released July 08, 2009

Iris Apfel

When a dry cleaner lost the belt to one of her ensembles, Iris Apfel did what she does best. She got creative — in this instance appropriating a Halloween-style plastic ball-and-chain. The final touch: black wooden cuffs coupled with flying-saucer-like disks for her wrists. Much of Apfel’s wardrobe includes similarly eclectic accessories, along with Oscar de la Renta trousers, a Qing dynasty skirt and a brass carrying case from Tibet. In Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel, (On view October 17, 2009 to February 7, 2010) you’ll get to see Apfel’s style and perhaps find your own. Here, with some input from Carl, her husband of 61 years, Iris talks about her love of jeans, and how fashion can lead to courage.

What’s your process for creating an ensemble?
I don’t have an intellectual process. It’s a totally emotional thing. I play around. Sift and winnow. When you overstudy things, you get uptight. Being relaxed is the best part of it. I like architectural clothes so I can embellish them myself. If it’s a good basic thing — not a la de da brocade or a very coarse wool — you can always switch things around and dress it up or down by the accessories you wear with them.

Do you know when an ensemble is complete?

At the moment I’m creating it, I don’t. It’s not complete until it gets my look.

How does fashion impart courage?
Dress gives you the opportunity to express yourself: who you are, who you think you are or who you want to be. So, take advantage of it. I hope that Rare Bird of Fashion will encourage you to be a bit creative, a bit daring and have more than a bit of fun.

Do you wear sweat pants?
No, they’re ugly. But I wear jeans all the time. If I had to choose one article of clothing, that’s what it would be. In Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1940s, I went to the local Army/Navy store. They were the only ones that sold jeans. Everything was Paul Bunyan size for all the workmen. I asked for a pair to fit me and they said, “Don’t you know, ladies don’t wear jeans.” I drove them crazy calling every day. I kept going back and back again. I’m like a dog with a bone. One day the owner called. He found me a pair of boy’s jeans, Levi Strauss.

What accessory defines your ensembles?
Bracelets. They’re standard equipment.

What is art?
Art is the ultimate self-expression. People say I’m my own canvas. Being individual today is unusual because everybody likes to look like everybody else. Everybody wants to know what people are wearing on the red carpet. If they dare to be themselves, they’re afraid.

Why do your ensembles belong in an art museum?

That’s for others to say! People keep telling me I’m an artist and I put things together in an unusual way. I’m not doing anything other than what I’ve been doing for 70 years. It’s funny (she laughs). I’ve become an icon and a supermodel.

How do you describe yourself?
Iris: I’m a working girl. I’ve worked all my life and I still do, including special programs for Old World Weavers, the company that Carl and I started, and my other charity projects.
Carl: She’s also a liberator.

Does Carl choose his own clothing?
Iris: No, we can’t let him do that. He ends up looking like he goes with the Daily Double.
Carl: When I get dressed in the morning and pick out a tie, I have to go before Iris. Then I go to the housekeeper. Then they have a conference — and they usually say no. It’s fun.

How have people reacted to your exhibition?

Happily, very positively. I was astounded at the male reaction, not only designers and clothing professionals, but regular guys. Kids enjoy it, too. They like the joy, the colors and the shapes. But most profoundly, it seems to have touched a nerve with women — women of all ages and backgrounds and interests. I had no idea how much frustration and unhappiness many of them feel about fashion and dressing. In droves, by mail and in person, I read or listened to their stories. They all told me how much the show affected them and gave them inspiration and courage. And some went so far as to tell me I changed their lives. Stunned, I would say to Carl, “What does she mean by this? What kind of poor little life does she have that I had to come along and change it?” I didn’t feel I could dare ask for an explanation. Then one day at an upscale collectibles fair, I got my answer. A middle-aged attractive dealer came over to thank me personally for helping her navigate through her life-changing experience. “I will be 70 years old next week,” she said, “and was never happy with the way I dressed. I didn’t want to look like everyone else but I didn’t know what to do to look my own way. I was frightened of looking freakish.” Then she came to see Rare Bird and was bombed out. She realized one could express oneself and learn to dress the way one likes. But she wasn’t fully certain and came back to see it again the very next day. She began to experiment. And once she didn’t dress like everybody else, she realized she didn’t have to think like everybody else. That’s a very important message and that’s why I keep Rare Bird circulating. I feel like I’m doing my kind of women’s liberation.

How do you manage your heavy accessories?

Fairly well, with minor exceptions, like when I wear the silver and turquoise necklace that’s in the show. I have to be assured that I won’t have to stand for more than eight or nine minutes at the cocktail party before sitting down to dinner. Otherwise I’d collapse.

Have you ever worn something that wasn’t meant to be an article of clothing?

Very often. One night the temperature plummeted and I wasn’t prepared. I thought I had a fur but I couldn’t find it. I tore the house apart. In desperation, like Scarlet O’Hara, I wanted to tear down the draperies but there weren’t any up at the time. So I pulled a beautiful mohair throw off the chaise and wore that. It looked great.

What colors do you avoid?

Anything that makes me look sallow. Murky yellows and greens. I love muted colors, but there’s a difference between murky and muted. In the right tonality, I never met a color I didn’t like.

Interview conducted by PEM Editorial Director Lisa Kosan

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