Iris Apfel is rarely seen without her signature oversized, round-frame glasses. For decades Apfel has been a flamboyant presence on the New York fashion scene and although her pace may be slow, her wit is consistently quick.
Iris (2014) is Albert Maysles’ documentary centred on a character study of the intriguing Iris Apfel. Although the documentary is not groundbreaking in its form, the reliance upon Apfel’s personality is the driving force of the film. Maysles’ direction is often overshadowed by the enigmatic force of her presence. The 87-year-old documentarian follows 93-year-old Apfel as she reels off anecdotes with gleeful willingness, opening up to allow behind-the-scenes access into her life.
Apfel recounts that when she was younger, she was told: “You’re not pretty, and you’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. You have something much better: You have style.” Apfel’s attitude towards the fashion world is refreshingly judgement-free. She holds the mentality that there is an internal factor that comes with the externalisation of being fashionable. Maysles succeeds at showing Apfel as an embodiment of classic, timeless fashion. He translates this personal depiction of Apfel’s life through an observant lens.
The documentary also taps into Apfel’s mind, she still grimaces at a big price tag and is willing to haggle. She combines cheapness with chicness to design her own style, consistently exuding a uniqueness of personal taste. She is comfortable to stand out from the crowd. At the heart of this film, Apfel is a vision of grandeur. Proudly displaying her magnificent collection of accessories that dangle from her frame as she is adorned with colourful, mismatched fabrics. Unfazed by the looks she attracts, Apfel is defined by her own glamour and allure. She is a woman with a vision that she has maintained throughout her career. Apfel is the Agnès Varda of the fashion world. Imparting wisdom about life, she radiates a charm that is infectious.
Apfel’s husband, Carl, is also a soothing presence in the film. He is the human embodiment of Carl from Up. Carl sits in the corner of the room complimenting Apfel’s clothing as she potters about their home. The love between them is clearly mutual: Apfel wanders into Carl’s interview to drape a blanket over his shoulders at the first sign of him being cold. Maysles keeps a distance that allows these individuals to continue existing without being disturbed, observing them go about their days and reflect on their life together. The pair speak honestly about the personal sacrifices they have made, being transparent that you cannot have everything you wish for.
With Carl by her side, Apfel’s career has spanned decades. From fashion to interior design, she has done it all. But at 93, her life has not completely slowed down. Keenly interested in the education of the next generation of fashion students, Apfel is also a visiting professor. The documentary follows Apfel being involved with these students, more than willing to impart knowledge that seems invaluable to them. However, Apfel is not just renowned for fashion – her skills are also clear through her interior design; she has completed restoration work for the White House for nine presidents. Apfel’s curiosity in the exclusive for these clients led her to travel to Europe in search of unique fabrics for her designs. The documentary indulges in the personal elements of these projects: featuring footage from Carl’s 16mm travel films presents an intimate side to plotting Apfel’s life. Perhaps Maysles should be hired to make a TV show about Apfel: ‘Keeping Up With Iris’, in which Apfel tours her three properties – all of which hold vast collections of her eclectic accessories and stunningly unique clothes that have been gathered over a lifetime.
Finding beauty in the unusual, Apfel wanders through thrift shops and market stalls, immediately befriending the store owners and leaving with outlandish coats in her lap. It is clear Apfel has a place in her heart for the fashion industry, after all, it has given her a career. Although there is a noticeable part of her demeanour that is willing to laugh at the seriousness of the world she inhabits. “It’s better to be happy than well-dressed,” she shrugs before busying herself with her phone that never stops ringing. Her presence is a grounding reminder of reality when so often the industry is presented with a saturated focus on youthful beauty, Apfel is a figure proving style has the possibility of being timeless.
After decades, Apfel has left a noticeable mark on the New York fashion scene. As a “rare bird of fashion,” her wings still carry her forward. Iris is a wonderful reflection on the legacy of an individual who has lived an exceptional life. Iris Apfel: interior designer, businesswoman and fashion icon who deserves a seat at the table of fashion royalty.