In an industry currently headlined by Cara Delevigne, Alexander Wang, and the Olsen Twins, you would think one must be under 35 to ride the waves of fashion. Enter Iris Apfel, 94-year old businesswoman, interior designer, and fashion icon. Apfel, nicknamed “The Rare Bird of Fashion,” has been a consistent and prominent figure in the fashion world for over 60 years, and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Albert Maysles’s 2015 documentary Iris follows the rare bird throughout her day-to-day functions, activities that include consulting Bergdorf Goodman on their window display of her costume jewelry collection, appearing on Martha Stewart’s talk show, and posing for Vanity Fair magazine. This Queens native approaches each task with more energy than someone half her age, firing off inappropriate jokes and throwing out pop culture references at rapid speed. Whenever asked, “How are you?” Apfel is quick to respond, “I’m vertical.” While always aware of her age, she refuses to let it slow her down.
Maysles’s vibrant and sensitive documentary allows the audience to quietly trail behind the larger than life Apfel in quick, present day scenarios, effectively giving us a taste of her style, humor, and work ethic without harkening back to the past. Photographs of a younger Apfel rarely appear, as Iris focuses on the woman she is now, not the woman she once was. Apfel knows the value in her accumulated years, and it has aided her in keeping her extensive clothing and jewelry collection relevant. “If you hang around long enough, everything comes back,” she reminds us while flipping through her wedding photos and coming upon a pair of pink satin wedge heels she still wears, 66 years later.
Apfel is not one to follow any style rules. She is a lover of blue jeans, woven coats in wild patterns, and endless layers of bracelets and necklaces. At any moment she is adorned in dozens of colors. Her signature round, oversized, black-rimmed glasses complete each and every ensemble. Apfel laments the sameness in fashion these days, and has made it her life’s work to uncover unique pieces in unlikely places. Traveling from West African markets in Harlem to antique stores in Palm Beach, the professional haggler always seems to be adding something new and unconventional to her wardrobe.
The real heart of Iris comes from witnessing her marriage to Carl, her husband of 66 years. Partners in life and business, the Apfels ran the successful textile firm Old World Weavers from 1948 to 1992, assisting with White House restoration projects for nine presidents. Despite their professional success, Iris and Carl are exceptionally normal. When not picking up phone calls from Vogue, Iris is scolding her 99-year-old husband for taking too many yogurts from his hospital room after a procedure. Many of the scenes have been filmed in the couple’s toy-filled homes on Park Avenue and in Palm Beach. Here you realize, while the fashion industry lives for the Apfels, the Apfels could live without the fashion industry. “It’s better to be happy than well dressed,” Iris reminds us. Luckily, with Carl, she is both.
Iris is a colorful, humorous, and thoughtful documentary—and you don’t have to be a fashion buff to enjoy it. Director Albert Maysles, himself a venerable aged 86 at the time of shooting, has made an insightful film that never fails to take an old woman seriously. We are always laughing with, not at, Iris. “Tucked between the photo shoots, magazine consultations, and backstage conversations with Kanye West (!), Iris Apfel offers us cherished advice on pushing past convention and living our fullest life, no matter how old we are.
Grade: A. Iris gives you everything you didn’t even know you want and need from a documentary, and it does so with blazing style.