Iris Apfel, a Queens native and NYU graduate, is one of NYC’s latest and most loved it-girls. Mixing seemingly discordant patterns with pieces from “high” and “low” fashion (think Dior meets thrift store), Iris Apfel has distinguished herself as one of New York’s most iconic tastemakers and fashionistas—all at the age of 93.
Apfel cultivated her kaleidoscope wardrobe as an outcry against the “button pushing culture” of the fashion industry—an industry that, for Apfel, now values uniformity over originality. To combat this tendency, Iris Apfel dons oversized black glasses—her signature—and layers of eclectic accessories, patterns, and cuts. By combining all of these elements, Iris Apfel creates for herself a rich and highly complex style that is simultaneously a salute to modernity and an echo of the past.
In fact, Iris Apfel’s blend of style is so successful that it caught the Met’s eye. In 2005, The Costume Institute organized an exhibition that centered around Iris Apfel’s extensive collection of accessories and clothing. Thanks to the Met and its show, the public fell in love with Iris Apfel, who became New York City’s darling almost overnight.
Even a decade after her Met feature, Apfel remains in the public’s mind. Recently, Albert Maysles (who passed away earlier this year) directed Iris, a documentary on the famous Apfel and her colorful life. As the camera journeys through her day-to-day, viewers can’t help but feel Apfel’s infectious passion for fashion, for art, and for life.
However, despite her burst of fame, Iris Apfel insists that her style is, at its core, improvisation. Her look is not carefully cultivated and is not the result of meticulous planning. Instead, Iris Apfel compares her creative process to jazz, a style built from improvisation and a spirit of freedom.
Iris Apfel embodies that free spirit, the one that is especially inherent to New York City. Her style, from chunky bracelets to elaborate coats, is a reflection, rather than a source, of her creativity. Apfel truly believes in the individual—the individual that is in control of his or her self—a self that, for Apfel, is manifested in fashion. Iris Apfel’s unwavering belief in the individual is exactly what makes her stylish.
When asked about style, which is separate from and easily confused with fashion, Apfel gave her honest and inspiring, words of wisdom on how to obtain the elusive New York je ne sais quoi:
‘You can’t try to be somebody you’re not; that’s not style. You have to learn who you are first, and that’s painful.’
By Austin Seidel
Originally from the pine forests of Georgia, Austin now splits her time between Hong Kong and the Bay Area. Currently an undergraduate at Stanford University, Austin studies English and art history, fascinated by the roles visual art and the written word play within culture. In her moments of free time, you can find Austin in a coffee shop, with a cappuccino in one hand and a book or pen in the other.