Saturday, 21 April 2012

Iris Apfel: "When you don't dress like everybody else, you don't have to think like everybody else."

Forget "style icon", Iris Apfel is a blazing explosion of a star:  the over-used "icon"  label is a pale, watery insult to her rich, individual elegance - a badly-made consommé to her triple-strength lobster bisque. Much is made of fashion/clothes/personal style as a form of creativity - consumption as self-expression. 99% of the time I am highly sceptical of such claims: 99% of the time, we buy and wear clothes because they have been successfully marketed to us, we have been sold an image ourselves which we strive to make material through the purchase and accumulation of various adornments. We have no more "created" our style, than we "create" our identikit catalougue Ikea kitchens. I do believe, however, that Iris Apfel is of the other 1%.  

One feels that her life may have been worthy of a mid-century raunchy but worthy novel. Her name alone conjurs up all kinds of delicious visions (Iris Apple! - and, rather appropriately, Iris was the Greek personification of the rainbow, and acted as a godly messenger). The first painting she bought "might" be a Velazquez. She describes herself as a "geriatric starlet." Her jewellery collection includes necklaces made for elephants and horses. She and her husband have been responsible for providing curtains to nine US presidents. In 2005, the Met staged an exhibition of her clothes, accessories, and lifestyle entitled Rara Avis. A rare bird indeed, and a game one at that.

I hadn't heard of her until I was sideswiped by the above Apfel-frieze in the Guardian last month - and I feel that my life has been poorer for it. She has exudes sheer joy and love of life through every outfit she wears. I can't pretend that she isn't "fashion", because she is -  she owns her fair share of Dior, Lanvin and Balenciaga, and has launched her own line of jewellery. But nevertheless, her style is entirely her own. She mixes and matches without inspiration from Vogue, Hollywood or anywhere else. The power of Iris is her indiduality and this is surely the message that we should take from her and her glorious look: wear what you have, wear what you like, mix and match however the hell you want. Don't spend your time, energy, your élan on emulating an impossible ideal.

Shame, then on the Guardian for their advice on how to Get the Iris Apfel Look.... I somehow don't think that a pair of Mango sunglasses and a French Connection necklace will transport me here:

Into the Gloss has a fascinating interview with Iris here, in which she talks about her early life in New York (crossing the river from the Long Island farm to "buy provisions" in Manhattan), and her beauty secrets (Cetaphil and something called Yatagan, apparently). What a completely fascinating woman - and now a Grey Gardens-style film is to be made about her life....


Architectural Digest takes a tour of her fabulous (of course - she was a decorator) apartment here: "To the right of the front door, two stone pedestals piled with art books flank a Baroque console topped by a chinoiserie mirror. Eighteenth- and 19th-century dog portraits line a corridor leading to the bedrooms, and in the boiseried living room, an antique carving of a French mountain dog holds a platter brimming with costume jewelry. Everywhere there are exquisite French chairs, painted Genoese chests, antique paisley shawls, New Mexican santos, and much, much more."

You have to read more about her life and opinions here in a Guardian interview with Gaby Wood : "People say: 'You have inspired me, you've given me courage…' They've gone so far as to say you've changed my life! And I would come back and say to my husband: 'I can't understand it – what kind of poor little life did she have if I had to come and change it?'" Her husband said she should ask. And sure enough, the next time someone said she'd changed her life, the fan was a 70-year-old lady in Florida. Apfel thanked her, then took her aside and said: "Would you mind very much explaining that to me?" So the woman did. She said that she'd never wanted to look just like everybody else, but she wasn't sure how to do that without looking silly. Once she saw Apfel's show, she knew, and what's more, she said, "now that I've learned I don't have to look like everybody else, I don't have to think like everybody else".

[...] The first time Iris, née Barrel, thought "I have nothing to wear!", she was eight years old. Her mother had arranged for her to have a formal portrait taken, and together with her nanny, the eight-year-old fashioned something Isadora Duncan-like out of cheesecloth. What followed was a lifetime of improvisation. The granddaughter of a Russian master tailor, she grew up in Queens. Her father was an eccentric decorator and her mother, who had a flair for tying scarves, made all the money. When Apfel was a child the legendary interior designer Elsie De Wolfe hired her father to install all the mirrorwork in some suites she was putting together at the Plaza Hotel. Apfel would visit her, and de Wolfe would receive the girl from her bed, wearing a dressing gown she'd had made to order out of mink.

[...] She met Carl Apfel on holiday at a hotel. He told a mutual friend that she'd be very attractive if she'd only get her nose fixed. Iris said: "Well, you can tell him what to do!" They've been married now for almost 62 years. They've been so busy, working and travelling and collecting and speeding in the Maserati that, for one thing, they "haven't had time" for children. "We did have the good fortune to see the end of the old world," says Apfel, and images of the couple wearing evening clothes on transatlantic steamers and sunning themselves on Capri come effortlessly to mind. "In my view," she says, "you can't go to the future if you haven't come from the past."

[...] There was a phase in the early 50s when she "never got dressed", as she puts it. "I had one very bad experience," Apfel remembers. "As a decorator, I was dealing with all these shallow, silly women. Lots of them used to congregate in the showroom after a day of shopping. I had some doctors' wives, and one day one of them was wearing some beautiful alligator pumps. One of the ladies said: 'Oh my goodness, those are great-looking.' She said: 'Oh yes, two heart attacks.'" A couple of people had had to die, or almost die, in her husband's arms for those shoes. "So I took to wearing a black tunic with black stockings, high black boots, a hood. It was like a revolt."

[...] "Doing your own thing is very good, if you have a thing to do."

And there is more in the Telegraph here:  'When I needed to wear glasses, I decided I'd wear glasses. All the better to see you with.' - or, as the New York Times would have it, her glasses "have in effect become a metaphor for her eyes, and through them we’ve found another way of looking at our own world.”

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