Review: Iris – A Film About Business Woman, Interior Designer And Fashion Icon, Iris Apfel

Fans of fashion eccentrics and docu-films like Bill Cunningham New York and Advanced Style, get in line for Iris. You can't miss this much fabulousness.


You might not know her by name but chances are you’ll recognise those distinctive specs. Round, inky black and covering at least half of her 93-year-old face, Iris Apfel has, at last, a full, feature length film dedicated to her creative and sartorial brilliance.

On the record

Last year, the Tate Museum in London produced a short film showcasing Iris’s interpretation of the work of Matisse – they were exhibiting the artist’s Cut Out collection at the time.

It whet our appetite for more, and thankfully acclaimed director Albert Maysles (who passed away on 5th March aged 88), went the distance – he followed Iris around for four years. Although shot like a documentary, it’s a comprehensive story of her life up to this point – what looks like her final scene. Despite her colourful outlook, there’s a semblance of sadness, Iris is tired, inevitable I suppose when you consider her age.

With this comes truth. Her honest quips cut through some incredible and extraordinary events, leaving the viewer amazed and amused in equal measures. This is a woman who undertook design projects in the White House for Truman, Clinton and every American president in between. “We had a problem with Jackie,” she deadpans.

Iris has, according to fashion curators, one of the most extensive wardrobes in the world (enough to fill three apartments – which she does), pieces of which have been displayed at The Costume Institute at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Industry honchos bow at her feet – at the CFDA awards we watch Bruce Webber gush, Bill Cunningham snap, Jenna Lyons (of J.Crew) fangirl and Kanye, yep even Kanye manages to smile.

Love me do

Married to Carl, who celebrates his 100th birthday on screen, Iris still has her wedding shoes, dating all the way back to 1948. “He was cool, cuddly and he cooked Chinese food – I figured I couldn’t do any better,” she says as she props herself up beside him in a Disney denim shirt (she’s a self-confessed denim freak).

In 1950, the pair founded Old World Weavers, a textile company specialising in fabric restoration and replication, which they ran successfully for 42 years. Carl’s 16mm memories from buying trips around the world flash up as they recall their exotic travels. To this day, he remains Iris’s sounding board.

Case in point, at Palm Beach Vintage, a clothes shop near their Miami pied-à-terre, Carl sits happily while Iris models outfit after outfit, each one more glorious than the next – BTW, her De La Renta coat is insane. “That’s where my money goes, to buy my baby clothes,” Carl hums. “It’s either Iris or Uncle Sam.”

Cray for colour

Known as the rare bird to most – or the magpie, as she calls herself – Iris was always fascinated with style. “When I was a kid I saved up 65 cents for a brooch that I thought was the cat’s pyjamas.” Chances are it’s stashed away in her Aladdin’s cave, flanked by Versace, Dries and coats from Pakistani flea markets. When asked the secret to putting looks together, she replies nonchalantly, “I try this, I try that. I don’t have any rules, it’s not intellectual, it’s all gut. I don’t buy things to impress people, I bought it ’cause I liked it.”

I wanted a career and I wanted to travel. I learned a long time ago that you can’t have everything, I don’t want my child raised by a nanny. My mother went back to work when I was 10 years old and I felt abandoned. Something has to give and sometimes it’s you.

And her kaleidoscopic collection continues to grow. She haggles with a sales assistant over the cost of costume jewellery – “my mother worshipped at the altar of accessories” – and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. A friend pushes her wheelchair to a non-descript African shop in Harlem where she manages to sniff out exquisite, indigenous pieces. Deciding to splurge, Iris whips out the gold AmEx from a well worn Ziploc bag.

“I love craft. All the original crafts are going down the tube. These new designers, they don’t sew, they don’t draw, they’re just into the media. Individuality is lost these days.” To address this issue, Iris accepted a visiting professor post at the University of Texas NYC Program. “I work with the students because they haven’t a clue about the outside world. I show them things they don’t know about fashion.”

Young guns

Passing on this information to the next generation and hearing her speak about the youth of today, prompts the interviewer to ask her about her decision not to have children. “I wanted a career and I wanted to travel. I learned a long time ago that you can’t have everything, I don’t want my child raised by a nanny. My mother went back to work when I was 10 years old and I felt abandoned. Something has to give and sometimes it’s you.”

Her decision paid off. Even now, Iris continues to work, selling her Rara Avis jewellery line on HSN (a shopping channel), lending her unique stamp to various collabs such as a sell out make up collection with MAC, and fields up to fifty phone calls a day. Jewellery designer Alexis Bittar laughs as he recounts his conversations with Iris. “Me: ‘Iris you love it’, Iris: I’m so tired’, Me: But you love it’, Iris: Okay, I do a bit’.”

We follow Iris as she travels to the Long Island City storage facility, stocked floor to ceiling with all manner of beautiful artifacts, furniture, paintings and original prints. She’s choosing items to sell – “everything has a season and now is the time. I’m only able to give away this stuff today.” In true Iris humour, she punctuates her heartfelt remark with a practical sentiment – “I could do with a few more shekels.”

As the credits roll, Iris accepts an award from the City of New York. “Thank you for allowing me to live and practice my madness,” she responds graciously. No, thank you Iris for being a singular woman and an inspiration to all.

Iris is out 31st July, exclusively at the Lighthouse Cinema, Dublin.