The life of Iris Apfel

If we were all a bit more like Iris Apfel then the world would be a much better place. Both her personality and wardrobe are filled with vibrant optimism, making her someone who I strive to be like in 50 years time. Born August 29 in 1921, New York, she has built up a lifetime of achievements and successful career ventures as a businesswoman, interior designer and fashion icon.

iri3She the child of two arty love birds- Samuel Barrel, a glass-and-mirror businessman and Sadye, a Russian born fashion boutique owner. Its clear from Apfel’s expression through clothes and interior, that she studied creatively, at art school in Wisconsin and also Art History at New York University.

In 1948, she married Carl Apfel. Two years later, they launched a textile firm and ran it until they retired in 1992. From 1950 to 1992, Iris Apfel took part in several design restoration projects, including work at the White House for nine presidents, including everyone from Kennedy to Clinton.

The Apfels lived a gilded uptown life in a Park Avenue apartment and through their business, the couple travelled all over the world where she began buying pieces of non-Western, artisanal clothes and began to build up her iconic wardrobe, which is more like a gallery of art rather than just accessories. 


Often referred to as the muse of New York, she became a fashion icon and cover star at the age of 83, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute presented an exhibition about her. This included some of her exquisite pieces by rarified Paris and New York designers: there was a coat of multicoloured rooster, duck and fowl feathers by Jean-Louis Scherrer from 1962, and an orange jumpsuit by Geoffrey Beene from the early 80s. But what made the show so inspiring was the unique way Apfel wore these pieces, which was recreated on the mannequins.

She since starred in Kate Spade campaigns with Karlie Kloss and Tavi Gevinson, a documentary about her life, Iris, and collaborated with a number of major brands including MAC Cosmetics, which created shades that referenced the name of the Met show and her penchant for bright colours. She started her fashion career after retirement age, but she’s the first to call out the fashion industry for being youth obsessed.


irisRalph Lauren based a 2006 collection on upholstery fabrics as a tribute to Apfel’s work as a textile designer and Apfel attended as guest of honour at the Joanna Mastroianni catwalk show, as they were inspired by Apfel’s style. Apfel stars, along with Anna Wintour, as a New York grande dame in the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, having been in his famous photographs for several decades.

The story of Apfel’s style travelled from a personal closet to a museum, and from there to the front row, the big screen and then to the minds of creative directors at major fashion houses. Jimmy Choo named a mini collection of maximalist, colourful, ethnic-glamour accessories in her honour, referencing the collection as what every modern-day Apfel would wear during a summer season in Ibiza.


Apfel has seized the imagination not as a couture fashion plate but as an example to a free-spirited, adventurous mindset that, these days, seems in danger of extinction. Fashion can get lost beneath the anodyne beauty of ‘trend’ aesthetic that worships anything but personal style, which in reality, is what fashion is all about.





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