Janel Dyan

Women Crushing It Wednesday

#WCIW: Iris Apfel

Advanced Style Icon. True Individuality. A life well-lived.

Born in Queens on August 29th, 1921, Iris Barrel Apfel is 96-years-old. However, Apfel is anything but an “old lady”. The nonagenarian shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. In fact, she has been busier in the last three years than ever before. In 2014, Apfel was the subject of the final documentary by the acclaimed photographer and filmmaker, Albert Maysles. After its premier at the New York Film Festival, Iris went from stylish New York staple to full-blown, world-renowned style icon. Her humor, wit, massive (no, really, MASSIVE) collection of jewelry, and outrageous, but elegant, style instantly endeared her to millions of viewers and fashion industry types alike—and her phone began to ring off the hook. 

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Apfel became interested in style—particularly jewelry—at a very young age. At eleven, she used to skip school and travel into Manhattan to explore various neighborhoods. In Greenwich Village, she stumbled upon a tiny shop owned by a very “elegant gentleman” and her eye was caught by a brooch with rose-cut diamonds and a high gallery with filigree. The young Iris was entranced. It had to be hers. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Apfel said, “I lusted after this pin but I didn’t have a penny to my name. So I saved and I scrimped and sometime later I went back. It was the first time in my life I ever haggled. And finally—he was going to give it to me anyway—he gave it to me for the huge sum of 65 cents. I still have it. I don’t wear it, but I still have it.” 

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She would become a lifelong haggler... and a lifelong jewelry collector. Known for her oversized beaded necklaces, stacked bangles, and statement-making rings and baubles, Apfel’s jewelry collection is the stuff of legend. The pieces take up multiple rooms and two-story closets in her homes in NYC and Palm Beach. Iris also does not discriminate when it comes to her accessories—whether it’s a $3 bracelet she finds at a bazaar or a $100,000 Tiffany necklace, each holds a special place in her heart—and her memory. Iris has an uncanny ability to remember where and when she purchased and has worn almost every piece in her collection. Of her collection, Iris has said, “I have a very odd collection: it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. I have some very important, valuable things, and I have some junk, and I like to mix them all together. I’m constantly buying jewelry—I love it, I love it, I love it! I mean, I could be an octopus and have ten heads and I couldn’t wear it all.”

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In 1948, Iris Barrel married Carl Apfel and the two embarked on a truly remarkable life together that, even after 67 years, still felt cut short with his death in 2015 at 100-years-old. In the 1950s, the couple, united in their love for style and fabrics, started Old World Weavers—a prestigious company that sourced and produced high quality textiles from around the globe. In their search for the fine textiles, the Apfels traveled the world over—the influence of which is highly prevalent in Iris’s jewelry and clothing collection, as well as the couple’s home decor. Over the decades, the couple became some of the most sought-after interior designers in the world. They were even called in to redecorate the White House for the Presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. They became favorites of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Greta Garbo and were even commissioned to provide the fabrics for the redesign of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Years later, in 2005, The Met would approach the Apfels once again to create an exhibit all about Iris. The exhibit, called Rara Avis or “Rare Bird” focused on Iris’s eccentric style. 

Iris’s star continues to rise. She has partnered with the Home Shopping Network to produce a line of jewelry and accessories inspired by pieces in her own collection, appeared in the documentary If You’re Not In the Obit, Eat Breakfast, and has become one of the most recognizable faces of the “Advanced Dressing” movement. She has described her recent career explosion as becoming a “geriatric starlet”. Through it all, however, Iris has remained true to herself—which is, by her own description, “The oldest living teenager”. For her true individuality, her original style, and her remarkable, well-lived life, Iris Apfel is this week’s #WCIW.

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