Jewish Fashion Icon Iris Apfel Taught Us to Be Colorful and Proud – Kveller
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Jewish Fashion Icon Iris Apfel Taught Us to Be Colorful and Proud

We're so grateful for 102 years of her lessons in charm and style.

Iris Apfel’s 100th Birthday Party at Central Park Tower

via Noam Galai/Getty Images for Central Park Tower

Like many people, I fell in love with Iris Apfel and her style when I first laid eyes on her. There was something incomparable about the Jewish fashion icon, who passed away last week at 102 at her home in Palm Beach. There was something magnetic and loud about everything she wore, sometimes literally with the clinging and clanging of bangles and big plastic necklaces, which was always paired with the calm confidence in her demeanor.

What really got me into the cult of Iris was the movie “Iris,” directed by “Grey Gardens” director Alfred Maysles. Apfel was wise and witty and charming. She doled little lines of wisdom and funny brazenness. Every single one of her outfits was better than the last, and completely unique. The way she expertly matched different patterns and textures came from both her art studies at college and decades of work with textiles and design, but also her innate stylishness.

That natural born fashion sense was possibly passed down from her Jewish mother, Sadye (Syd), who ran her own fashion boutique. Iris was raised in a Jewish farm in Queens, and started collecting trinkets and accessories on visits into the city.

Apfel got to outlive many of her favorite collaborators, from Maysles to designer Albert Elbaz. The love of her life, her business partner and fellow adventurer Carl Apfel, passed away in 2015.

The Apfels first met on Iris’ first solo vacation as a young working woman (she was a copywriter at a fashion magazine, of course) and he apparently told her friend that she “could be a stunning girl” if she “would only go and get [her] nose fixed,” she recounted.

She told her friend that “you can go tell him what to do.” I think the meaning of that is clear. He eventually asked her out on the phone and the two became inseparable.

They worked and traveled together, eventually starting the textile firm Old World Weaver, which worked on restoration projects, most notably in the White House. The Apfels sold their firm in 1992, though Iris stayed on as a consultant.

In the last decades of her life, she became a viral fashion icon with million of social media followers and dedicated fans. In 2018, she became a Barbie doll. She got to collaborate with Bergdoff-Bergman; she had her own coloring book; she made carpets with Ruggable (one of which I am staring at right now in my home as I write this piece) as well as delightful brooches and earrings. She became the first person to show her wardrobe at the Met, and the oldest model to be signed on by IMG models, at 97. She always felt young, though.

The thing about Iris was that she didn’t have to speak for you to feel like she had improved your life. Her fashion spoke volumes — those big round glasses, her painted lips and nails, the clanky jewelry, the big prints of florals and animals and textures of feathers and fur. Yet when she spoke, she was usually just as entrancing and unique as her fashion.

Apfel didn’t have any children, but she helped raise us all to be unafraid to wear what we want to wear, to be as colorful and loud as we want with our one precious life, as she was with her long and bright one.

At the end of the day, though, she never passed judgment on anyone for their fashion. “I can’t judge, it’s better to be happy than well-dressed,” she said in “Iris.”

May her memory be for a blessing.



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