Masters of Fashion: Style Iconoclast Iris Barrel Apfel

The fashion world is gathered in Paris in search of direction and the new. But you needn’t fly to Europe to discover a marvelous, rare look at genuine style. “Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection” is the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. 

The show is a sampling of Mrs. Apfel’s wardrobe over a 50-year period. Mrs. Apfel, left, arranged each mannequin with her personal accessories.

Mrs. Apfel and her husband, Carl, center right, founded the interior decorating textile house Old World Weavers in the mid-1950′s. Their travels in search of historic fabrics led to her collection of fashion.

The exhibition spotlights the total look of one woman of style rather than the usual display of designer clothes separated from the wearers’ accessory embellishments. Here you have the whole dazzling image, including her signature eyeglasses and her cuff bracelets, always warn in pairs. The galleries were designed by Harold Koda and Stéphane Houy-Towner to capture the joyfulness of the Apfel style.

Wardrobe of a Lifetime 
Iris Barrel Apfel’s eclectic embellishments.

By Diana Mehl

House of Lanvin gown, circa 1985, gold, brown and gray silk taffeta. Bhutan arm bracelet, late 19th century, silver and amber. Tibet cuff bracelet, late 19th century, silver, amber, coral and turquoise. Tibet necklaces, early 20th century, silver, amber, coral and 
Apfel Collection

September 13, 2005 – January 22, 2006
Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute
212.535.7710 Iris Apfel is a woman who has always been ahead of her time. More than 50 years ago as an interior designer looking for fine traditional silk-woven fabrics, she recognized an opportunity and, along with her husband, Carl, founded Old World Weavers. She built it into one of the most prestigious brands in the world of textiles and interior design and the authority on antique textile reproductions. Thirteen years ago it was sold to Stark Carpets Co., and the Apfels have remained as consultants. The exquisite workmanship and exclusive fabric designs drew the attention of the most discriminating clients – including Greta Garbo, Marjorie Merriweather Post and Estée Lauder. Old World Weavers was also awarded many important restoration projects, which included work at the White House, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Flagler Museum in West Palm Beach.

Apfel has been an influential pioneer in the world of fashion as well, boldly linking high- and low-end and melding flea market finds with haute couture long before doing so was considered fashionable. Her richly layered combinations of colors, textures and patterns show her remarkable panache.

Apfel’s highly original personal style will be celebrated this September in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute –Rara Avis: Selections From the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection – in what will be a new focus for the Institute: the collection and exhibition of accessories.

In an interview with Panache, Apfel reminisces about her most fabulous finds.

You really are an original. How would you describe your remarkable personal style?
I think dressing up or down should be a creative experience. Exciting. Fun. Whenever possible, it’s really great to start with a marvelously cut designer piece and build on it.

For me the key to personal style lies in accessories. My friends tell me that my oversized glasses and my pairs of bracelets have become my unwritten signature. I have amassed an enormous “collection” of bags, belts, bangles and beads without which I would be lost. One can change the entire look of an outfit by substituting one accessory for another. I love objects from different worlds, different eras, combined my way. Never uptight, achieving – hopefully – a kind of throwaway chic.

Which outfits have you put together that truly reflect your style?
A cowhide apron worn with a black satin jumpsuit. Antique Georgian jewelry mixed with flea market bangles and beads. A haute couture Jean-Louis Scherrer black-feather coat – the tips painted in gold – worn over Roberto Cavalli leopard-print jeans, and leopard-fur loafers. The outfit topped off with some ethnic jewelry. A canvas dance skirt from a Southwest pueblo edged in tinkling tin bells worn with different couture jackets. A silver-fox coat belted with a beaded African wall hanging, and red woolen boots with embroidered trim from Etro. A Chi’ng dynasty exquisitely hand-embroidered silk wedding skirt with an English cashmere sweater and Italian handmade glove-leather boots.

When did you start to collect and how did you build your collection?
I don’t collect per se. My so-called “collection” is my wardrobe. It’s a series of pieces I’ve accumulated over these many years. I love a timeless look, and I think if you develop your own style it’s not a problem – at least it hasn’t been for me. I can mix something I bought last week with something I’ve hoarded for 30 years. I don’t follow trends or the hottest fashion. I buy what I like and my tastes are quite catholic – haute couture to street fashion. Pieces that are Zen-simple or madly baroque. I love ethnic as well as contemporary. I’m fond of serious and adore amusing. I try to make all these things work together. I’ve never bothered to analyze how this happens, but Harold Koda [the curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute] says there is an underlying aesthetic to all this madness. At this point – with all the curatorial poking about – I feel that my life is an open armoire! I do have a lot of stuff. After all, I’ve been shopping for myself since I was 12. I’ve been approximately the same size since high school. While my waistline hasn’t expanded, my closet has! I’m constantly donating to charities and thrift shops. But one doesn’t give away the very special pieces or the haute couture unless it all would be going to the Costume Institute of the Met!

What is going to be included in the show?
The curators are still making changes so I’m not absolutely sure. A few things I hope are cast in stone.

Years ago the ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) did an annual fashion show/luncheon where the leading designers of the day were asked to create an outfit of their choice from a given upholstery house. After a few years, the great James Galanos agreed only if he could use Old World Weavers. He created a spectacular evening outfit that is still very current. It is a floor-length coachman’s coat of a spolinato (handwoven linen background designed with huge woolen flowers that look as though they were embroidered). It is collared and cuffed and half-belted with Russian sable and completely lined with a heavy Chinese lacquer-colored Doupioni silk and is worn over a long “deceptively simple” very sleek dress. It was the centerpiece of his retrospective show at FIT and, hopefully, will now be shown again.

There will be a madly multicolored feather jacket by Nina Ricci combined with Moschino brilliant-red-suede pants that are slashed ribbonlike from the knees down. Then, a three-tiered taffeta ball gown from Lanvin worn with heavy amber Tibetan necklaces and heavier “killer” bracelets. A Tunisian wedding dress. A fabulous coat by Ferré for Dior made of black-and-white Tibetan lamb impregnated with feathers. And Galliano for Dior trousers with wolfskin from the knees down that makes me look as though I’m wearing high fur boots.

You design your own clothes as well?

In the early ‘50s my husband, Carl, and I began a business called Old World Weavers. We specialized in weaving exact reproductions of antique-period fabric. This all started with some samples in a suitcase and, happily, we just grew. Our clients were the rich and famous and we did tons of historic restoration projects – major work in the White House during the combined reigns of eight presidents. Because of business, we spent almost three months every year traveling the world to find offbeat classic-period textile designs and to locate specific mills with specialized techniques to properly replicate them. They were exciting and challenging years.

I’ve always been extremely grateful to have traveled during that period and to have experienced the last of the Old World. One was still able to find highly skilled artisans to carry out any crackpot idea that dropped into one’s head. And surely they did – and often!

I guess I’ve been a “closet designer” who could never sew or cut. But I had some ideas and I could sketch. God knows I had the fabric and the trimmings. It isn’t easy to design an outfit, and trying my hand at it gave me an everlasting respect for the artistry and craftsmanship of the true couturier.

Nevertheless I had my fling with dressmakers, bagmakers and shoemakers. Whenever someone would admire the fabric on a finished piece and ask where it came from, my husband would say, “Thank you – I just shot my couch!”

Who are some of your favorite designers?
Ralph Rucci, a wonderful, special friend of mine who is dressing me for the show’s opening party. When he suggested doing it, I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven! I also favor Gianfranco Ferré, Geoffrey Beene, Galanos and Norell. I guess they’re all part of one beautifully cut tradition. I love clothes that look deceptively simple. They are really very complicated and very architectural. Actually Ferré studied to be an architect. All these guys really know what they are doing. They know how to sketch, cut and sew. Rucci’s clothes and Galanos’s clothes are sometimes more beautiful inside than outside. They are both detail-driven. I love amusing clothes as well. I find that Moschino, Gaultier, Dolce & Gabbana and Krizia have great style and humor.

Color is very important to you.
Yes, but I also love gray – from pearl to charcoal. Years back I was particularly fond of a Tibetan gray-lamb hat and coat. I especially liked it because I had gray hair at the time and you couldn’t see where I ended and the coat began!

Do you have any favorite colors?
In the right tonalities I never met a color I didn’t like. I love turquoise and reds. I’m not too keen on pastels. They make me look wimpy. I like black and white together a lot – it’s very crisp.

You also have a fabulous jewelry collection.
Thank you. I don’t know how fabulous, but it is large and insane. Mostly faux with a few real pieces. Eighteenth-century antique to plastic trash. Most of the pieces I found years ago … in Greenwich Village way back in the ‘30s, and, later, in the London street markets, the Sablon in Brussels and the Puce and shops in Paris. In the bazaars and souks in Istanbul, Cairo, Tunis and Marrakesh. During the ‘50s I was in Paris quite often on business and took a fancy to haute couture faux jewelry. I eventually met the great Parisian creators Gripoix and Roger Jean-Pierre who made all the faux jewels for Chanel, St. Laurent, Balenciaga, Givenchy, et cetera. I was invited to their ateliers and we became friends. Often I’d stumble upon an antique piece and ask if it could be copied for me in paste. I’d supply a picture or a sketch and voila! I have some very interesting pieces that are one-of-a-kind. Or I’d buy the jewelry they designed. At first people thought I was mad to spend the money I did on what they considered junk. But I thought the pieces were very artistic and beautifully made. Now they are highly prized. I’m not too fond of real jewelry. I know it’s very beautiful and very valuable but I never had a yen for it. (What a lucky man my husband is!) My stuff is much more dramatic and much more fun.

What are some of your favorite pieces of jewelry?
My turquoise beads from the Southwestern pueblos. A 19th-century Venetian Blackamoor made by the Venetian firm of Codognato. Carl bought it for me when we sold Old World Weavers to Stark Carpets 13 years ago. A Navajo silver-and-turquoise, very large bolo in the form of a Yei figure (Navajo deity). Any of my heavy silver cuffs – Native American, Indian, Afghani, Russian. I favor pairs of bracelets. A necklace that is in reality a set of Bakelite color chips. A Near Eastern slingshot that poses as a necklace. I especially love ethnic jewelry of all kinds. It has a kind of integrity. It’s so organic and it speaks to me, and it is often oversized. I’m crazy about coral, amber and silver as well as turquoise. Many cultures totally unrelated to one another use the stones in different ways. I love to pile on jewelry piece upon piece as the old Native American chiefs did, like the Tibetan ladies do when they go out. If you haven’t noticed, I like BIG. Discrete jewelry is not for me.

What other types of collections do you have?
Museum-quality Ch’ing dynasty costume and textiles. Native American arts and crafts, including Kachina dolls. A large collection of French 19th-century opaline. Antique textiles. A small collection of dog paintings, etc.

What do you look for?
I’m a hopeless romantic. I buy things because I fall in love with them. I never buy anything just because it’s valuable. My husband used to say I look at a piece of fabric and listen to the threads. It tells me a story. It sings me a song. I have to get a physical reaction when I buy something. A coup de foudre – a bolt of lightning. It’s fun to get knocked out that way!

What is your shopping philosophy?
I do have a dominant shopping gene but, unlike a reasonable person, I never plan for what I need each season. I enjoy the thrill of the hunt, the discovery and the endless search. In another creation I was, perhaps, a hunter/gatherer. After all these years, I’ve learned that it’s not the end result or finished product but the process I most enjoy. If my experimenting, searching and juxtaposing turns into an exciting outfit well, it’s just a big fat bonus!
What are you buying now?
Jeans. What else would you suggest for the world’s oldest living teenager?

On Wednesday, January 18th, I had the privilege of interviewing Iris Barrel Apfel in her New York apartment, as part of our ongoing ‘Masters of Fashion’ Video Interview Series which includes discussions with some of the most influential names in American fashion. Past interviews in the series were with Elsa Klensch, Ralph Rucci, Grace MIrabella, Geoffrey Beene, Rose Marie Bravo, Arthur Elgort, Ruth Finley, and Bill Cunningham. This interview is made possible by our sponsor, Fashion GPS. 

Intro: I am Marilyn Kirschner the Editor-in-Chief of Today our very special guest is Iris Barrel Apfel, a fashion iconoclast and true original whose colorful individualistic and exuberant style was celebrated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, in an exhibit, ‘Rara Avis’ which ran from September 13th through January 22nd. It’s groundbreaking, has became a must see, and is being talked about by everybody in the industry.
Marilyn Kirschner: Fashion Week is only days away. How do you feel about being an 84-year-old fashion icon that is being touted by many of the world’s most influential designers as one of the most important influences for their upcoming fall 2006 collections?

Iris Apfel: “It’s hard for me to comprehend and to believe…it’s like some sort of a fantasy…it’s great, I mean…. I have been doing the same thing since practically childhood, I started to do my own shopping when I was 12, so after 70 years, it’s kind of a kick in the head. It could have never happened, so…better late than never.

M.K: What were the influences early on that made you love fashion so? Was it a fashionable mother ?

I.A: Yes, I had a very chic mother, she loved clothes and she subsequently went into the fashion business and opened a small chain of boutiques and left me to my own devices more or less. Of course, Grandma was there and we always had people to take care of me but… Since I am 12 years old, if I wanted any clothes I had to go and find them myself because she didn’t have any time. So it was wonderful training, it was difficult, I’ll never forget my first experience, and it’s made me a very, very good shopper. I think all young women should be exposed and not just given unlimited charge accounts and told, “This is how much you can spend, go out and buy an outfit”. Today, with places like H&M and all the discount stores, there’s really no reason not to be well dressed.

M.K.: That’s true. Were you always mixing high end with low end?

I.A.: Always

M.K.: Was it one of your signatures?

I.A.: Always

M.K.: And did people think that you were perhaps a little off your rocker because of your imaginative put- togethers?

I.A.: They must have but it never really bothered me one way or another, but…obviously, they must have.

M.K.: And did you always like having people look at you because you stood out in the crowd?

I.A.: No, I never really think about it, I ‘m not like that, I have so many other things to do, I’m not a fashionista, and that is not my life. I love beautiful clothes, and I appreciate them, but…I’ve been in business all my life, I built a business, I’m involved in a lot of charities and all kinds of stuff…and….you know, just being a clotheshorse is not my idea of heaven.

M.K.: So you started as an Interior Decorator?

I.A: I was a Vogue Prix de Paris Girl, if anybody remembers back that far…and I really wanted to go into editorial fashion. So my very first job was a copygirl for Women’s Wear Daily when they were down on 13th street. And I lasted there a couple of months. It kept me in shape, and that’s about all because I was running up and down the stairs, but I realized quickly enough, being very bright, that I’d never get any place because all of the editors, at that point, were middle aged…they were too young to die and too old to get pregnant, so I’d never get a shot. So eventually I left…and through a series of strange events I ended up in the Interior Design business.

M.K.: About 50 years ago, you and your husband Carl, founded one of the most well respected companies on the planet in terms of textiles and materials….Old World Weavers.

I.A.: Yes, yes…we had a small company that we started…actually we began it out of a suitcase because we didn’t know if that would work and we didn’t have any funds. I designed these things and Carl would go around during his lunch hour with a suitcase which he put on wheels…if we had packaged that we wouldn’t have had to do anything else. And…it went well, we got some very nice orders, and we subsequently decided that we would go into business ourselves. It was very colorful and very fun because our first big order came with one of the icons in the industry, Dorothy Draper. She was a very large woman, and she had a very large trestle table in her studio, and it took Carl months to get an interview with her, and I have to go back to tell you that the bag, the suitcase, was getting very heavy, because he had so many samples and silk (our silks were just incredible, they were 18,000 ends to lift – they could just pull a truck), and he had loads and loads of heavy antique Dupioni taffeta, and I said “Rather than carry them all, it’s getting too cumbersome, let me go to the mill and make you…what we used to call a long “blanket”.

So I arranged to do about 14 inches of each color and I would grade them and in a grand gesture he threw it across Madame’s table and she said “This is just what I’ve looked for all my life young man, this is the first intelligently scaled stripe I’ve ever seen.” and she said “I’m doing a job for a colonel who has this marvelous house in the Bahamas and he has 18 foot ceilings and I need horizontal stripes and I can’t find so can you make me 300 yards? The following day we had a visit from a Sara Fredericks, who was a retailing icon. She was doing her house and had mentioned that she needed fabric, and a mutual friend who was an antiques dealer said “you have to go and see these two young people who are just starting out”…she came to the apartment and fell in love with something and ordered 250 yards…so we said “ok we’re going into business” and that’s how it happened.

We took a 3 story walk up on 57th street, which I thought would be more chic than any place since we were in the middle of all the antiques dealers, and you had to walk up three double flights of stairs… but all of the so-called ‘W’ ladies came, they all found out about it, Mrs. Marjorie Meriwether Post among them and she became a very good client. I have a very funny story about her. She bought a silk called “Hillwood” for her house in Washington, it’s just beautiful, in the estate section where all the embassies are, and we finished the order. Early one morning, the telephone rang and I answered, and she said “This is Mrs. Post and I must speak with Mr. Apfel immediately!” And I thought Oh my God what happened? So Carl got on the phone and she said, “Mr. Apfel, last night my drapes were delivered, they are absolutely stunning. They are hung in my sitting room and I am on top of an 18 ft ladder, examining them. You have also made me exquisite silk fringe, but I must know, how many little balls are there supposed to be in a running yard?” and my husband thought for a minute and he said, “Mrs Post, every day I eat your Raisin Bran , can you tell me please how many raisins I am supposed to find in a tablespoon?” And she said, “Touché! Mr. Apfel. My God, I am a foolish woman and I better get down from that ladder before I break my neck. Excuse me I love it and that’s the way it should be”.

Everybody came (including Estee Lauder) and everything we did then was custom made, which of course became too cumbersome to make. We subsequently decided to go to Europe to buy and design and look for antique fabrics which had always been or were the basis of our collection, they were not knock-offs or…what’s the word…. suggestions, but were actual replicas, and we would go all over trying to find the proper mill to so that it was just like it was in the 17th or 18th century.

M.K.: Precise and perfect. Do you think the relationship between fashion and home décor is underrated or do you think it’s always been proven through the years and centuries?

I.A.: Oh through the years it’s been proven, because the beautiful French dresses are of the same fabric as the ladies sat on. I mean they go hand in hand, it’s part of a lifestyle.

M.K.: And in the cover story “What Iris Wore, A Style Original”, by Ruth La Ferla, which ran in the Thursday Style section of The New York Times on November 17th, 2005, it was mentioned that Ralph Lauren is apparently going to be using a lot of upholstery fabrics for fall 2006 as an inspiration from your exhibit.

I.A.: Oh that would be very nice. I would hope so. We have sold upholstery fabrics over the years. Oscar de La Renta has bought a lot of our things, Geoffrey Beene has bought some, Bill Blass…. Ralph Rucci. As a matter of fact, the boots, the high over the knee boots in the exhibition, if anyone has seen it, are of an upholstery fabric that Ralph designed and Mr. Blahnik made. And I just had to have them.

M.K.: One of the things I love is the Traveling Ensemble (a matching three piece outfit fabric comprised of a coat, a pair of boots, and an oversized satchel) made from a heavy upholstery-like animal pattern.

I.A.: It is in a fabric that I designed, that was made in the early sixties.

M.K.: All I could think of when I saw this is how nowadays, when you travel and see how most people look at airports, they are such slobs. I couldn’t get this image out of my mind and I was hysterical. I also thought that it was so amazing, was that it showed a lot about how exacting and precise your aesthetic is, in both home decor, and fashion sense. It’s all very, very consistent.

I.A.: I don’t dress like that when I travel now. I do think you have to look like the crowd so I always travel now in jeans.

M.K.: Things are a lot different now. By the way, speaking of jeans, I read somewhere that you refer to yourself as the “world’s oldest living teenager” and that you are constantly looking for jeans right now. Are there any particular brands that you like?

I.A.: Well I like men’s jeans, they fit me very well.

M.K.: What makes?

I.A.: Well any kind, I have a lot of Levi’s…I used to buy a lot of jeans in Target or places like that…I can’t remember the names. I also have beautiful designer jeans.

M.K.: Some were in the exhibit.

I.A.: Very few. They were going to do a big section on jeans but we had so much to choose from. They decided that we should go for fantasy. Harold said people don’t want to come to the Museum and look at jeans or little gray flannel suits, even though those are what I wear most of the time because I like to accessorize them and they’re easy and practical for working which is what I do. I had nothing to do with the curatorial process. And actually, they came looking for accessories, the exhibit was conceived as a small accessory production. It was going to be a vitrine Show….

M.K.: When did they first approach you with the idea of doing a show?

I.A.: It was just about a year before the show. The Met decided that they wanted to put an emphasis now in collecting accessories. Because accessories are very important and they don’t have as splendid a collection as they do of clothing which is second to none…

M.K.: I see…

I.A.: They also felt that it was the appropriate time because very few people are buying couture anymore and designer clothing is really beyond many, many people…but almost everybody, with a little scrimping and saving can have an accessory designer piece, so it could be a bag or a scarf, or a pair of eyeglasses, but there you are. So we were going to show accessories and they were hoping that would influence the process of their collecting. And they came to the house and had the idea that actually it would be better if I would be willing to accessorize a few mannequins so people could see how things could be put together. And I said no problem. And then they began to peek in the closets. Because, I emphasize, I do not have a clothing collection. I never bought to collect, I bought to wear.

Everything I have in the show has been worn many, many times and I hope I will be able to wear them again. And I know people who have collections tend to keep them on a pedestal. I have a friend who has a brilliant collection of over 15,000 pieces and she gave me a look at it and she was pulling this divine Geoffrey Beene dress, and I said “Oh God, you must have had fun wearing that!” and she was horrified! She said “Wear it? I never wear anything in my collection, you don’t do that”. I said “Well you don’t but I do so I guess I don’t have a collection”. Anyway they kept looking and pulling things out… we had no place to put it, I had to push all the furniture aside in this place, I bought ten pipe racks….

M.K.: How many curators were here?

I.A.: Two…Harold Korda and Stephane Houy-Towner were the ones that worked with me. And we refined, and we refined and they picked what they liked, and carted it off to the Met and again it was twice as much as we have now. From 10 mannequins it went to 82….and I had the privilege of accessorizing each one. They said “We pick them but you have absolute carte blanche… “

M.K.: Did you do accessorize each outfit as you had worn it at one point?

I.A.: Yes.

M.K.: Did you sometimes improvise and make things up as you went along thinking “Oh I would have worn it that way?”

I.A.: It was a combination because sometimes, I have an accessory that I didn’t have fifty years ago and there could be an improvement…and some of the shoes have worn out and some of the beads have fallen apart….

M.K.: So you had to revisit your closet again.

I.A.: Yes and we had a lot of fun because I am a very disorganized abnormal buyer. I don’t go out when I need something, I haven’t got much time to shop so every once in a while when I get the call, I go dashing and then anything that I see and like, whether I need it or not, I buy. Most of the time it doesn’t go with anything else, and I hang it in the closet until it does. As a matter of fact, Harold was hysterical because in between all these pieces we found….oh may be a half dozen pieces that I had bought…oh 20, 30 years ago….with the tag still on…and which I had never worn, so may be some day I will find a way to wear them…

M.K.: And the idea of making the mannequins look like you? Whose idea was that? That was brilliant to put the glasses on…brilliant….

I.A.: I believe it was Harold and Stephane…it was a joint collaboration.

M.K.: It’s too bad it opened right in the middle of last Fashion Week because I didn’t get to see it until much later… and I’m not the only one. By the way, how many times have you walked around the exhibit yourself?

I.A.: Well, I do go back because people ask me to “please meet them” and take them about…. Stephane is wonderful and gives a great tour and he gives a much better tour than I do…I am very excited because this coming Friday, Joyce Jameson, an idol of mine who has called many times to see when she could come is meeting us at the museum and we’re going to take her around.

M.K.: What are the most surprising bi products of this exhibit? Offers, invitations, requests that have come your way because of the publicity and accolades the exhibit has received?

I.A.: The most surprising thing is that I have become this geriatric starlet. That knocks me out….

M.K.: As I’ve said, “move over Kate Moss, there is a new fashion icon in town and she’s about 50 years your senior.”

I.A.: At least I am not on drugs, and I don’t need to go through rehab.

M.K.: You mentioned that you have had a few job offers?

I.A.: Oh yes, all kinds of things have come my way, somebody asked me to star in a video for her, an Indian singer who is very good…she asked me to do that…yesterday…Lindsay Lohan was at the show (she is quite a fashionista) and she went crazy and she wants to meet me and she asked Stephane if I would be her stylist….

M.K.: Unbelievable!

I.A.: Ralph Lauren came with some of his designers and he was so admiring and so sweet…and I am sure it was a joke but after walking through the first gallery he looked at me and he said “Hey would you like a job?” which was funny…. I have been asked to write a piece in Vogue, I have been asked to do an article for Destination, I have been asked by several people to do a book, and I’ve been on television umpteen times and on international television which I find very amusing. We’ve done all of the Caribbean and South America…., Germany, Austria and Switzerland …the Russians want me to do something, as do the Italians, but the communication department tells me they are so disorganized they can’t get it together.

I’ve been interviewed by the Style Network and by Dana Tyler on CBS, oh my God all these things have opened up. I have met all these wonderful people, and I have a whole collection of fan mail. I just cannot believe it, I really can’t. I’m thinking this is all ridiculous, why would this be happening to me at this stage of my life, when I should be put out to pasture?! I still can’t believe that I am here sitting with you! And to be in the Pantheon you put me in with people like Ralph Rucci, Bill Cunningham, and people like that…I don’t deserve it.

M.K.: Oh yes you do. Do you think your talent can be taught? Do you think that most or every woman can have a little piece of what it is that you have or do you think it is so inbred in a person that you either have it or don’t?

I.A.: Well, that’s what I really think (the latter) and Harold had a lovely little piece in the exhibit that urged, “This is a very tricky thing, don’t try it at home”. However, people can do something else that I have tried and I am very grateful…the first week of the show a very nice lady came over and she said “Thank you Mrs. Apfel, thank you, thank you” and I said “Why are you thanking me?” And she said “Well first for the show, but frankly, you’ve given me courage…20 years I had this mad moment and I bought this insane necklace that I brought home, tried on, screamed and put back in the box….Now that I’ve come to your show, I’ve taken it out and people are admiring it.”

M.K. Do people recognize you on the street and approach you? I.A.: Oh yes, German television wanted to film me shopping at H&M and Bergdorf Goodman…it’s interesting….the show has touched a pretty wide audience….the people at H&M loved it..they certainly are a different segment of society than those who shop at Bergdorf…people…women all tell me that they feel liberated….I’ll show you a letter that I got yesterday…this lady said that she collected fabrics and that she has something she was going to put on a bedspread…now it is an evening cape. And this tweed that was going to be something else was now a walking suit….Hurray, hurray…

M.K.: You look absolutely amazing, regardless of age…better than most people…What do you think is the most common mistake most women over a certain age make?

I.A.: I think they are trying too hard to look young. Coco Chanel once said that what makes a woman look old is trying desperately to look young….and it’s so silly, why should one be ashamed to be 84? Why do you have to say that you’re 52? Nobody’s going to believe you anyway … they get their faces done but their hands are still creepy..I mean it’s ridiculous. Why be such a fool? There’s nothing wrong and I think it’s nice that you got to be so old….It’s a blessing.

M.K.: But don’t you think most older women are urged to wear boring beige from head to toe and to sort of fade into the background?

I.A.: Not only older women, younger women too.

M.K.: There’s too much good taste around, don’t you agree?

I.A.: Absolutely. A lovely lady, Jessica Kagan Cushman who makes jewelry, working in scrimshaw on ivory, gave me this wonderful bracelet that subsequently someone stole from me at a restaurant when I took it off for just seconds. Anyway, it said something like, “Fashion can be bought. Style you must own”. You can teach people good taste and you can teach people to be tolerant and liberated and open…you can even teach them how to be more courageous…but there is a certain ‘something’ that can’t be taught…Can you teach someone to paint like Michelangelo? You can’t. It is an art form.

M.K.: It’s having an amazing eye and intuitively knowing….

I.A,: Yes… I just feel something…I had a client once when I was in the interior design business…who was a very untutored lady…she had no schooling…but she had inherent great taste…and so one day I said “Colleen, why did you pick that?” she said “You know why? Feels good here”. (And Iris motioned with her hands) I got to feel when I see something it is a physical, chemical sense…it’s not intellectual. It’s just something….

M.K.: I always think of Diana Vreeland’s quote, “Bad taste is better than no taste”…Don’t you think that a little bit of bad taste is what makes fashion interesting?

I.A.: Oh absolutely! I think that when you’re so well put together, I mean like so many homes today…and I hate what is done today, like standard equipment…and that’s what it is…. everybody has to have the basic big sofa with the two French chairs and the Coromandel screen…it’s just cookie-cutter.

M.K.: Well talk about cookie-cutter, and since we are now entrenched in the red carpet season…what do you think of the typical and predictable “red carpet style”? The whole idea that it “takes a village” to make a star what with the stylist, the long gown showing a lot of boobs, and borrowed diamonds…By the way, did you see the Golden Globes?

I.A.: Yes, but there was very little jewelry in that show. I thought the girls looked dreadful…

M.K.: Was there anyone that you thought looked good?

I.A.: Yes there was, what’s her name?…. S. Epatha Merkerson, the lovely black actress on ‘Lackawanna Blues’..who said she was 53…She had a simple long sleeved black dress and she had diamond earrings and she looked stunning. She looked appropriate and she looked great, and she wasn’t trying to make a statement… These people don’t even look appropriate. They look silly. The stylists, I think, should be tarred and fathered or sent to rehab…. It’s quite awful…these girls, evidently have no education and no frame of reference, but …it was really sad, I thought that was one of the worst….

M.K.: What irks you most about fashion today? What do you see that bothers you most about it?

I.A.: I think some of it is sort of insane and some of it is not for grown women…There are lots of things that would look amusing on a 12 year old, but then you see some ladies of a certain age trying to wearing it…you know, down to here…it’s all so ridiculous.

M.K.: Is there any particular trend right now that you are seeing on the street that you don’t understand at all? Anything current?

I.A.: Well on the streets in New York in the summer, everybody looks like they’re going to the shower…the flip flops…it’s so awful.

M.K.: What is it your summer uniform when you’re in town? What would you wear on a really hot day?

I.A.: Well I live in jeans usually so I wear a lot of jeans, they’re cool, and they’re warm they’re everything. Or I wear linen and a shirt or simple trousers…

M.K.: And you always accessorize…Do you ever go out without accessories?

I.A.: Well not really. I feel naked. Sometimes when it’s very cold, I must admit I cannot wear silver jewelry because it gets too cold and I cannot wear my silver eyeglasses because it burns my nose…but I always wear something. I couldn’t live without my accessories.

M.K.: New York Fashion Week is upon us. I know that you’re a customer and friend and always go to Ralph Rucci’s shows. Are there any other invitations that you’ve received?

I.A.: No, nobody invites me. I know Ralph so he’s always invited me…But I met Michael Vollbracht (head of design for Bill Blass) who is adorable and who was a guest at a luncheon given in my honor in Palm Beach, and he came…and so we sort of fell in love, he’s a very, very nice man….very talented. We are residents of Palm Beach….but we keep this place because we come and go…I am still working…we sold our company to Stark Carpets 13 and ½ years ago…but we’re still there as consultants.

M.K.: I just want to go back to the idea of the designers. I know that you wear Ralph Rucci’s clothes. What other contemporary designers’ clothes do you wear?

I.A.: I.A.: I love Gianfranco Ferre…Geoffrey Beene I adored…although he is gone I know they’re trying to carry on…I hope it works, I hope it works…. I like architectural clothes…I also like amusing clothes and I like Moschino, and I like Gauthier, and I like Krizia…I still wear my Galanoses I think Jimmy is just the greatest….so wonderful and self-effacing…and Norell….I love Norell…I have everybody’s clothes because everybody has something that I like….but there are designers that I like but…they don’t make my kind of clothes…

M.K.: Are there any kinds of clothes or styles that categorically, you can honestly say, “I would never wear that?”

I.A.: Well Madame Gres was certainly marvelous but her chiffon dresses are just not for me. I don’t wear Chanel because I feel that..if I had a granddaughter I would be wearing her. They just don’t hang right. That doesn’t take away from the fact that they are brilliant they are wonderful, but I am happy in architectural clothes. I have a number of Yves Saint Laurent things…This (referring to her black leather tunic shirt) is YSL…Then I buy a lot of things that don’t have labels. When I went to H&M I fell in love with a fake fur and a skirt and they were both on sale…I paid $29 for the skirt and $79 for the fake fur.

I.A.: I don’t care what people think…I learned a long time ago…I was 19 and had a very traumatic experience….and I learned that I have to go to bed with myself at night and that I have to please myself…and as long as I don’t go out of my way to offend anybody that I love, upset my mother or my husband…I’ll do my own thing. And if the public doesn’t like it, it’s their problem, not mine.

M.K.: Is there anything you ever put on and looked at yourself in the mirror and said, “Nope, I can’t go out with this, it’s too over the top”?

I.A.: No, very rarely. Stephane always says that I’m ‘controlled baroque’. Harold says that underneath all my madness there is some sort of Zen ethics….I try to be controlled, I try to stop….Tomorrow I have to do something for ‘Paper’ and I guess I have to go over the top but then again I don’t know what that is…I’m not into that downtown scene….I guess we’ll come up with something…

M.K.: You are not a trend follower. Are there any retail stores that you think do particularly well in drawing people in?

I.A.: Bergdorf Goodman was always wonderful…Barneys brings in a certain segment of society…I have never been able to shop there…Years ago Barneys’ clothes only fit smaller women and years ago almost everything was black, beige or taupe. I like color. They do have a wonderful shoe department there…

I don’t have much luck believe it or not. One woman almost came to blows with me at the exhibit because she said “Oh they said you worked but you don’t”…I said “what do you mean I don’t work?”… “Well how could you possibly work and have accumulated all this? This is a life’s work.” So I said “Well I work, I did this on the fly…I don’t go shopping too often…It’s like an excursion when I do……

M.K.: Do you miss the 26th street flea market?

A.I.: Oh yes, well all the flea markets are finished now…it’s sad, it’s sad…Everything is gone really…I miss a lot but what can you do? You go on….

M.K.: Can you recall the least amount of money you spent on something that was really a true gem? Something that you recognized but that the seller didn’t? (Iris had told me about a tweed and leather Bonnie Cashin coat she paid $7 for at a D.C. flea market)

I.A.: Oh yes I have a lot of things like that. Oh there’s something I just found in Loehmann’s….. For my birthday I go to Loehmann’s because I get a 15% discount, it’s very exciting…and I found this wonderful, wonderful completely beaded coat from Ralph Lauren and it is so gorgeous …all the way down to the floor and I won’t tell you its price because it’s ridiculous…it’s divine and very Marlene Dietrich with crystalline beads on white chiffon…and it was way too long although I am fairly tall…and I went to three dressmakers and they all said they were afraid to tackle it and I didn’t know what to do…Ralph Rucci said he’d fix it but I didn’t want to trouble him…then I met Mr. Ralph Lauren and when I told him he said “Oh we’ll fix it”. So it’s now being fixed. It’s not like years ago but you can still get very good buys….

M.K.: You are ageless. What are your beauty and diet secrets? What do you use?

I.A.: Oh I don’t have any. I wear no make up, just lipstick.

M.K.: Moisturizer?

I.A.: My mother used to say that I should use it, she died and I promised I would….I don’t do any of this, it’s awful.

M.K.: Exercise?

I.A.: I am very active but I don’t do organized exercise. I should. And when I am in Palm Beach…we have a little gym and a trainer in the building and she gives wonderful classes and I go down every morning but I must admit…since we’ve started the show which was like seven months ago…I haven’t done anything.

M.K.: What is your ‘must read’ each month?

I.A.: I don’t have any “must”…really. I always look at New York Magazine when I am here to see what’s going on…I do everything that inspires and moves me…. M.K.: No fashion magazines?

I.A.: No, I lost my interest in what is going on unfortunately…and I don’t understand a lot of magazines, I don’t understand showing $20,000 dresses on 14 year old models…. Doesn’t make any sense to me. I went to a show in Palm Beach recently which had beautiful clothes…but I had never seen such itsy bitsy models… I asked, “What nursery did you rob? And was told, “We really had a problem because our samples were so small, our regular in-house girls couldn’t fit into them”. The girls must have been 14 and 15 years old… Now how can an intelligent middle aged or older woman who is a bit buxom relate? I said “isn’t that self-defeating?” Obviously not…I think women should learn to look in the mirror…

M.K.: When I walked around the exhibit there were groups of women who were talking out loud and their conversations were unbelievable, because most of them could not believe that you actually wore those clothes out. Many said, “Oh she probably designed that just for the exhibit….” They did not understand that these were actually your clothes worn by you in almost the exact way they were exhibited. I was just wondering if in your travels to the museum you heard any conversations like that?

I.A.: Oh yes many times…People asked questions like that all the time or they asked “where do I keep my clothes?” “did I wear everything?”

M.K.: And you keep everything in your apartment?

I.A.: Oh yes. It’s not always organized, sometimes it’s under the bed but it’s here.

M.K.: And you never had to catalog anything?

I.A.: Oh I don’t do that, it’s in my computer (head)…


M.K. When I was at the Met, it was on the Thursday afternoon that cover story about you had come out in the Style section of The New York Times and observed a lot of people walking. I asked one of the guards if he had noticed more people and said “yes” so they seem to be very well aware of your exhibit. Do you think the guards helped your cause there?

I.A.: Oh the guards were wonderful, because the first few weeks we had no PR at all and it wasn’t being advertised as it had no sponsor and if the guards weren’t so kind we probably would have had a smaller audience. They loved it which flattered me to no end because they see shows all the time…and one guard would tell his friend who was in the Chinese collection…or he would tell his friend who was in the European Collection and before we knew it we had a whole support system. And people would be looking at a beautiful painting and the guard would say “If you really want to see a good show go downstairs to the Costume Institute”. The same thing happened at the desk, people would ask for instructions… “Please tell me how to get to the Prague show” and they were told, “if you want to do yourself a favor after the Prague show go down and see the costume collection”.

And everybody who saw it…it’s incredible, they all brought people, they all came back with several friends…and it just mushroomed. The thing that’s incredible is…so many people have come 2, 3, 4….I had a man who told me he’s been back seven times…It seems to have touched a nerve. It seems to be something that people have wanted for a very long time and they are so happy that it’s happened. The women feel liberated and we have lots of men coming. Women come and tell me that they’re so happy that their husbands come and have a good time and don’t complain. Some of the men have asked to come back a second time.

M.K.: I was recently at a CFDA party and I spoke with several designers and I had mentioned that I was interviewing you and they all said “Oh my God she’s so fabulous, I want to send her something…”

I.A.: Oh that would be marvelous! Michele Stein (a well known fashion figure who reps several top Milanese designers) wanted me to come and see the show…and asked me to ring her up at my first opportunity to take her through along with her staff….And she said “This is absolutely incredible…I just got off the phone with Romeo Gigli and he told me that his next collection is based on your show”…I was really flattered, it’s incredible.

M.K.: So you might have to go to Paris and see his fall collection…maybe the models will all come out wearing your black framed owl glasses…

I.A.: I have a pair of Romeo’s black trousers with white beads…

M.K.: When he first started showing his collections in Milan in the eighties…it was just incredible.

I.A.: It was very magical. I love wild imagination that’s under control. I don’t like what some of these wacky people are doing now but I do like when designers take care…That’s what I admire so much about Ralph….everything is so beautifully made…I mean it’s just gorgeous.

M.K.: It’s just like Geoffrey Beene. You could turn it inside out.

I.A.: Well if you want to turn things inside out you should take a trip to Galanos…His insides are sometimes more beautiful than outside….

M.K.: I remember his shows when I was at Harper’s Bazaar and he used to take a suite at the Plaza Hotel and painstakingly show everything by himself.

I.A.: I have been taken to one of those shows by an old friend who was in the fashion business and I was thrilled to pieces and that night I went to a party and Geoffrey Beene happened to be there…and there was a couple of very young fashion writers….And they said to me, “we went to the weirdest show today…there was no big music and everything was so quiet and the models were just walking with little signs with just numbers, isn’t that strange?” I said “No darling that’s the way it used to be”…That’s the way you should have a fashion show, you should be there to look at the clothes, not to get up and dance…I don’t know how people can concentrate with the music. Some fashion shows are really just spectacles…

M.K.: What is the most memorable show that you have ever seen?

I.A.: Well I guess it’s because I was much younger and because it was Balenciaga….But I don’t know if you remember Sidney Gittler….

M.K.: I know the name…

I.A.: He was very important he started a line for Orbachs. And once for my birthday he said “you’re going to be in Paris, let me take you to a Balenciaga opening”….And oh my God that was incredible…I adore Balenciaga.

M.K.: What do you think of what Nicolas Guesquiere is doing for the label now?

I.A.: Well. It’s not Balenciaga….I don’t know much about it, I haven’t seen too much.

M.K.: And what do you think of the other current editorial darlings: Olivier Theyskens for Rochas and Alber Elbaz for Lanvin?

I.A.: I had a friend who said, “If you are in Paris you have to meet my friend Alber Elbaz”. We had just come from tea at the British Embassy…we had had no time for lunch and it was cold and we were starving and we went up to Lanvin where Alber was doing his collections and he was just like a Jewish mother. He was so sweet. I think he’s a big talent. And I always like when someone is a talent and a person.

M.K.: You mentioned that you like Ralph Rucci’s models.

I.A.: Yes because they all are good looking women but they’re not distinctive and they’re not supermodels. When Naomi Campbell comes out you look at Naomi first. The clothes are secondary….But Ralph’s models are very well trained and you can look at the clothes which is what you go to the show for.

M.K.: Ralph told me that I had to ask you to tell me the story about the Mongolian lamb.

I.A.: Oh he loves this story. I was the first one in America to have a Mongolian lamb…Oh God, it goes back a thousand years….we were going down the Rue St. Honore and you know how it curls sometimes….it was in the early sixties….A photographer was dragging his equipment and this coat and a hat…and I saw the most wonderful thing – this coat…my hair was like that at the time, it went from black to white….and I said to the cab driver, “Oh my God. Stop, stop! Let me out” And I jumped out and I followed this poor guy and he went into Lanvin so I followed him upstairs and he was returning this coat that was part of a collection…He had it on a photo shoot and I spoke to the vendeuse and I said “I must have that coat” and she said “Oh I am sorry but it’s in the collection and I can’t sell it to you now…come to the collection and if you like it we’ll make you one.” I said “I have no time to come to the collection, I am here working. I have to have that coat and I can’t wait”…I carried on so she promised me that after the two shows, I could have it. So I grabbed it and went back to New York…it was a three quarter simple Mongolian fur coat and it had a great matching hat and I liked it so because when I put it on you could not tell where the fur ended and I began! It’s one of my favorite purchases that I still wear.

M.K.: That wasn’t in the exhibit.

I.A.: No. There were so many things that they wanted to use but they didn’t have the space. We could have had, literally, Harold will tell you….Stephane as least 3 more shows. I have so much stuff.

M.K: Well let’s hope they plan another one.

I.A.: Oh I am sure they won’t. One is enough!

M.K.: How did you feel about the title of the exhibit, ‘Rara Avis’ (which is Latin for ‘rare bird’)?

I.A.: I guess I didn’t really ‘get it’ at first but then I was informed by Stephane that the late Richard Martin, (the famed former Curator of the Costume Institute) used to refer to me as “that rare bird” so it grew on me. I guess that wouldn’t have gone over). But then I was told that Richard Martin (the famed former curator of the Costume Institute) used to refer to me as “that rare bird” so it grew on me.

M.K.: Out of curiousity, what would you have called it if you had your say?

I.A.: (Laughing) Oh, probably something like, Out of the Closet, though I don’t think that would have gone over too well.
 I want to thank you so much for letting us in your fabulous apartment.

I.A.: Well it was a great pleasure to have you. It is such an honor for me as I said. To be associated…with people like Ralph Rucci and Bill Cunningham, oh my God! Like I died and went to heaven!

M.K.: Well you completely deserve the recognition; you’re a true original and you’ve inspired so many people. That’s what life is really all about.

I.A.: Well I hope I have.

M.K.: Thank you.

I.A.: Oh thank you!

(Transcription and initial editing by Muriel Triffaut)

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