An afternoon with Iris Apfel

An Afternoon with Iris Apfel
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An afternoon with Iris Apfel

Tell us a bit about your history in design.

I’ve been in home furnishings and design my whole life. I was at art school at 5 years old. I’ve never been in fashion. I just love beautiful things.

Everyone sees you as a fashion icon. When did people start paying attention to what you were wearing? 
Well, they always did. But once I had my show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in ’05, I became an overnight sensation. Really though, my overnight was about 75 years ago. I’m no different now, and I just think it’s hysterical the fuss everyone makes.

Do you remember pieces that you loved when you were younger?
Yes. I think everybody does. I think my favorite was a beige silk jersey dress. It had big sleeves and gold buttons and a belt. I remember being very suntanned, and I wrapped my head with gold mesh. I used to wear turbans all the time. I had gold thong sandals and a beautiful jacket, which my father bought me with some money he’d won.  

What was the occasion?

I had a date. I remember we were at the beach and walked up and down the boardwalk. Funny how some things stick. It was very contemporary. I could wear it tomorrow.

Do you still have it?
No, no. I have a lot of stuff, but I don’t have that. I have a dress I wore on my first date with Carl, my husband. It was a beautiful dress — black in a lovely fabric. It had a full skirt, but not too full. The waist was black satin, and it had a black satin collar with buttons on the sides of the sleeves and a pussy cat bow.

Well, it worked. 
Yeah [smiles].

When did you get married? 
We had a very fast courtship. Our first date was Columbus Day. Thanksgiving, he proposed. Christmas, I got my ring. Washington’s birthday, we were married. St. Patrick’s Day, the honeymoon was over. That was 65 and half years ago.

Are there current trends you love?


Which ones do you not like? 
Oh, I don’t think we have the time. I love far-out things, but I like them to be appropriate. I don’t think there are things you can or cannot wear just because you’re young or old, but there are certain things that women of a certain age shouldn’t do, like miniskirts. Seventy-year-old knees aren’t pretty. I’m not saying that when you’re old you should wear shackles and ashes. You’ve gotta know who you are and what you look like. It seems like mirrors have gone out of fashion.

It’s a shock to walk on Fifth Avenue. I don’t think we should be dressed up all the time — I’m in jeans right now. If you go out to a fine restaurant, it’s not a hardship for a guy to wear a jacket. I remember Le Pavillon, a great French restaurant, had a strict dress code. I went once in a Le Smoking pants suit in beautiful brown silk, velvet, and cream satin — divine. They said women couldn’t wear pants. Fortunately, the jacket was long enough and my legs were good, so I dined in just my jacket.

Do you have any favorite jeans?

Whatever fits. Lately, I’ve discovered Diane Gilman on HSN. Her size four fits like they were made for me, but I prefer men’s jeans. The prices today are just insane. I can, however, understand the expense if they’re embellished or designed in an interesting way. Jeans are just great. You can dress them up or down and still look neat and clean.

I’ll never forget staying in Tunisia for the summer many years ago. We were very friendly with the Tunisian ambassador and his brother was the head of the textile industry there. We went to one of his factories where they were weaving denim. He told us Pierre Cardin had bought a house in Hammamet and asked him to make jeans. In the back there must have been three stories piled with jeans. He charged us $1 a pair. And they had the Pierre Cardin label.

You have a lot of animals around. Do you have a favorite?

I love them all. I love the doggie over there holding stuff. When I first started my decorating business, I passed an antiques shop every day and he appeared. I walked in and said, “How much is that doggie in the window?” I didn’t have the money, so I would go in every day and say hello because I loved him madly. Months later the dog disappeared and I was crushed, but the shop owner (a good friend by then) said he’d gone to a nice lady. Years passed and he reappeared in her window because Mrs. So-and-So had downsized and sold him back. I told her the doggie was mine and to send him over, but I should have said send him home. When I got back to my showroom the guy who worked for me said, “Oh, Iris, we’ve never made a sale so fast. The doggie came in with a bell, and a woman saw him and had to have him. I put a huge markup on it, and she bought it.” I berated that poor boy. I told him to call the lady and tell her he’d made a mistake. I had to have my dog.

What's your favorite room in the house?

I like them all. Some are stuffed to the gills, but I always spend a lot of time [in the main living room]. It’s all very comfortable. We have a TV in the other room, but we’re not big watchers. My husband likes old movies, and I’m a late-night political junkie. I find it hideous and fascinating, what’s going on in the world.

Do you have a favorite movie? 
There’s a few I’ve seen in my day that I like. I love Gigi.

What about some of the classics, likeCasablanca or any of Audrey Hepburn’s films?
Oh, I loved Casablanca and Sabrina.

That was the first film for which she worked with Givenchy. 
Yes, such beautiful clothes. And what’s the one she did with Fred Astaire?

Funny Face. 
Oh, of course. I have to say if there was anyone who influenced me in the movies, it was Rosalind Russell. She fascinated me. I saw her when she was in the original Auntie Mame on Broadway, and she wore some pretty fabulous clothes then.

How do you put together your outfits?

I’m always in a hurry and do everything myself — I have no assistants besides an accountant. I’m a lunatic in the morning, and I keep wearing the same damn thing because it’s easy. I love putting stuff together, time permitting. I’m very casual, and I don’t sit up nights and think or worry about clothes. They’re beautiful and fun, but they’re hardly my everything. I have a very rich life outside of fashion.

How did your jewelry lines come about?

I’ve always loved jewelry and collected it since I was 11 years old in Astoria, Queens, where my grandparents were settlers. I took a fancy to New York City, and it only cost a nickel on the subway to get there. I skipped school every Thursday afternoon to go explore. I was most taken with Greenwich Village — it was a romance with the end of bohemia. I found a little shop in a tenement run by a Mr. Darrus. He was the picture of decadent elegance. He wore a suit that was threadbare, but he always had a handkerchief, boutonniere, spats, and monocle. He was enchanted with me because he’d never seen a kid who was so interested in all his crap. To me his shop was Aladdin’s cave. I became fixated on a particular brooch. It was a button made from antique gold with filigree and Tiffany-set diamonds. I was gaga over it, and I saved my pennies and eventually paid 65¢. I still have it.

So that was the start?

After we started our [decorating and antiques] business, we would go to Europe for fabrics and I would buy things. My clients liked offbeat things, and I used to ship at least two 40-foot containers a year back to New York. When that all stopped I still had the in at the flea markets, but my husband said we had no space in the warehouse. I told him jewelry doesn’t take up too much room, but little did we know. Many of my pieces are big. You can’t put them in tiny boxes.

We heard you love a good party.

Oh, of course.

So what makes the party? 
Well, most of the parties today are awful. You can’t hear yourself talk, you have to stand, and everybody screams to everybody else. That’s not a party to me. I like a nice dinner with interesting people where you exchange ideas. Alexis Bittar just made me a beautiful little birthday party. And Naeem Khan did one the year before. Usually, I have a problem because my birthday is August 29 and there never is anyone in town.

Say you’re throwing a dinner party. Who’s there? 
I would have Bruce Weber, because he’s very interesting and a lot of fun. I love Naeem and Ranjana Khan. Linda Fargo. Harold Koda and his friend, Alan Kornberg. Kenny Weiss is a very dear friend. I don’t like to be bored, and I don’t like to just chitchat.

Talk a bit about your decor. Are there any genres, decades, or styles you prefer?

I like to put together things that supposedly don’t go together, and I like offbeat things — never the standard equipment. I don’t prefer Georgian things, though they can be beautiful, but I love Italian furniture, baroque mainly. I don’t care whether pieces are expensive or junk. I took the idea of my wall paneling from Louis XVI. My two chairs with the orange are Sicilian 18th century.

Are there designers today who intrigue you? 
I’m not really up on the new ones. Ralph Rucci is a genius and a friend, and when it comes to red carpet no one holds a candle to Naeem Khan. I also love many of the Italians and Alber Elbaz.

During Fashion Week Iris Apfel - design legend, rare bird, and Fashion in Film guest of honor - invited us into her home. At her table, piled high with birthday flowers, we talked for hours over tea and sandwiches. She is resplendent, undulled by 92 years of hard work and exploration. When recalling clothes from the past, her arms and hands traced imaginary outlines in a way that made us see them. She says she hasn't changed since her younger years, and we believe it. The lady is a dish. She's also a well of experience and wisdom.

(Editor's note: Some answers are condensed for brevity's sake. Iris can spin a yarn.)

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