Iris Apfel is an American businesswoman, interior designer, and fashion icon.
Apfel was born Iris Barrel in Astoria, Queens, New York to Samuel Barrel, whose family owned a glass-and-mirror business, and his Russian-born wife, Sadye, who owned a fashion boutique. Apfel studied art history at New York University and then attended art school at the University of Wisconsin. When she was starting out in the fashion industry, Frieda Loehmann, founder of the famed department store, took her aside and said ‘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 first job was working as a copy editor for Women’s Wear Daily but she quickly moved on to work as an apprentice for interior designer Elinor Johnson. It was in this job that she realised she had a talent for sourcing rare pieces.
In 1948, she married Carl Apfel and together they launched the textile firm Old World Weavers. The firm was created after Apfel commissioned a textile created from her own design to fit into an interior design project, the finished product was so popular that her and her husband went into business with the textile manufacturer to create reproductions of historic patterns. Through their business, the Apfel’s travelled the world to visit various textile manufacturers and research patterns. On these trips, Apfel began collecting pieces of non-Western, artisanal clothes and wearing them to the high-society parties of their clients. From 1950 – 1992 Apfel worked on several design restoration projects, including work at the White House for nine presidents: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. This work brought her fame in New York interior design circles.
In 2005 Harold Koda, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute called Apfel after a late summer exhibition at the Met had been cancelled leaving him looking for a last minute replacement. Koda had heard about Apfel’s collection of vintage and designer accessories and clothes and asked her to create a show. The exhibition ‘Rara Avis (Rare Bird): Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection’ was the only show at the Met which focused on a living female who wasn’t a designer and it was solely styled by Apfel, who dressed the mannequins in her own personal, ‘wacky’ style. Even though the show relied on word of mouth the response was unprecedented and Apfel became a fashion star overnight. The exhibtion has since been seen at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, New York, and later at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
Apfel’s fame has lead to new projects and opportunities including: becoming a visiting professor at University of Texas at Austin in 2012; sitting for an “insane” Dazed & Confused cover shoot; becoming the face of two collections: one for Kate Spade, alongside the Victoria’s Secret model Karlie Kloss, and the other for jewellery designer Alexis Bittar – a campaign that saw her appear next to 19-year-old blogger Tavi Gevinson. She continues to grace countless fashion-magazine covers and consults and lectures about style and fashion. In 2013 she was listed as one of the fifty Most Unexceptional-dressed over 50s by The Guardian and in 2015 a documentary by Albert Maysles about her simply entitled ‘Iris’ was released.