The origins of Iris Apfel’s trademark style – in her own words

Iris Apfel at New York Fashion Week in 2016
Iris Apfel at New York Fashion Week in 2016 - Getty

Fashion celebrity Iris Apfel, who has died aged 102, was well known for her enormous glasses and eccentric outfits, usually finished with layers of colourful jewellery, as she was for being the only centenarian in the industry to grace magazine covers and best-dressed lists – earning her legions of fans and Instagram followers.

Here, in an extract from her book published on 19 April 2018, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon: Musings of a Geriatric Starlet, the designer looks back to the origins of her trademark style.

This article was originally published on March 17 2018

Black-belt beginnings

I started buying my own clothes when I was 12. My mother – who always dressed beautifully and was extraordinary for her time in that she went to college and then law school but dropped out when she was pregnant with me – went back to work, opening a boutique during the Great Depression.

In spring 1933, Easter was coming and I had no new finery suitable for walking down Fifth Avenue in the Easter Parade. My mother was too busy working to accompany me – she felt truly sorry about that. But she did give me the magnificent sum of $25 to go out and assemble an outfit by myself. I spent my first five cents on the subway ride from Astoria to Manhattan’s S Klein on the Square, probably the granddaddy of discount shopping and one of my mother’s regular shopping spots.

I walked into the store and fell madly in love with a dress I saw on the first rack. I wanted to buy it very badly, but heeding Mama’s advice to never buy the first thing I saw, but to comparison-shop instead, I headed for the department stores uptown, where I saw nothing I liked. Suddenly, it occurred to me that someone else might’ve bought my dress. I panicked and headed back downtown to S Klein, where I embarked on a breathless search for my prize, which was no longer in its original location. I found it on another rack fairly quickly. I grabbed it and gave thanks to God and $12.95 to the cashier. I then trucked down Fourteenth Street to A S Beck, the leading shoe emporium, where I selected a lovely pair of pumps for $3.95. That left enough money for a straw bonnet, a very light lunch, and five cents to get back home to Astoria.

My mother approved my fashion sense. My father praised my financial skill. Only my grandpa, who was an old-school master tailor, fussed and carried on about the button holes. All in all, it was a big success and the beginning of my career as a black-belt shopper.

I buy clothing to wear it, not collect it. I’m always asked about my ‘favourite’ this or my ‘favourite’ that. I hate that question! If I like something, I just like it. It’s a gut feeling.

Iris as the face of Blue Illusion’s autumn/winter campaign
Iris as the face of Blue Illusion’s autumn/winter campaign - Daniela Federici

I didn’t set out to build a wardrobe, either. I bought pieces when I found them – and when I could afford to buy them. I built my wardrobe slowly. I’ve been fortunate to have assembled a collection of couture pieces, beginning in the 1950s when I often travelled to Paris for my textile business. I’d go to the ateliers of the haute couture at the end of the season and ask whether there might be any runway pieces available for sale. I discovered the houses – Lanvin, Nina Ricci, Christian Dior, and Jean-Louis Scherrer, for example – who used mannequins with torsos similar in dimension to mine. I couldn’t afford to have a one-of-a-kind piece made for me at a couturier. I also buy what I like: if a bracelet is fantastic and it’s only $5 all the better.

European flea markets were also a favourite haunt, and I found a lot of great pieces – not the usual ready-to-wear. One day while shopping at one of my favourite textile stalls, I stumbled upon this eye-popping 19th-century chasuble in its original box. It had never been worn and was perfectly preserved. It was the typical outer vestment that a priest would wear during mass, except this one had sleeves. It looked like a magnificent tunic: ruby-red silk Lyonnaise velvet with a whole panel of silk broché and a border of handcrafted passementerie. Beautiful.

I wanted to buy it, which made Carl [Iris’s husband] hopping mad.

‘Absolutely not!’ he said.

I think he didn’t want me to buy it because he believed people would think he couldn’t afford to buy me regular clothes. We were about to have one of our rare combustions, when the good Lord sent the renowned fashion journalist Eugenia Sheppard our way. She saw the piece and swooned, ‘Oh, my. How gorgeous!’ In the end she was much better and less expensive than a marriage counsellor: Carl turned green and gave in.

I duplicated the fabric in our Old World Weavers line, and had pants and slippers made to complete the outfit. I never wore anything so much in my life, and I still have the outfit. Actually, I found a number of chasubles in France – all 19th century, well preserved, and never worn. I started to collect them, which, I suppose, is one avenue to building a wardrobe.

Iris on a shoot for 
AD magazine in her New York apartment
Iris on a shoot for AD magazine in her New York apartment - Roger Davies

I will admit that I should get my closets in better order. I have a lot of pieces, and they’re all over the place – but who has time to organise? Certainly not me.

I just hang things up on pipe racks.

Most of the time I’m in such a rush that I can’t find things. I’m on this shoot, I’m on that shoot, I’m travelling. I don’t have time to unpack properly when I get home, and then I’m off again.

I’m often asked by my guests if they can see my closets, and I’ve had 100 editors from big-time magazines ask if they can come over for a tour. That’s never going to happen.

Young ladies don’t wear jeans

I was one of the first women to wear jeans. I love denim and have never tired of wearing it. When I was in college in Wisconsin in 1940, women couldn’t buy jeans like they can now. Jeans were not a fashion item. They were only sold in stores that carried work clothes for men sized like Paul Bunyan. You couldn’t buy smaller sizes, and certainly not anything that would fit me.

Nonetheless, I was wholly dedicated to the pursuit of indigo; I had a vision of little old moi in a checkered cotton turban, oversize gold earrings, and a crisp white shirt, anchored by a pair of classic work jeans that I couldn’t get out of my head.I entered the local army-navy store and enquired about said item. My enquiry was met with a strange look, both quizzical and dismayed. If I recall correctly, I may have even detected a whiff of disgust.

Iris in front of her shoe closet in her New York apartment
Iris in front of her shoe closet in her New York apartment - Willy Soma

‘Don’t you know? Young ladies don’t wear jeans.’

I didn’t care if young ladies didn’t wear jeans – I wanted those jeans.

I begged the shopkeeper to help me. He kept saying that they had nothing. I asked him to size down a pair for me. To no avail. He did everything but kick me out.

I went back the following week, and we repeated the routine. And I went back again the week after that. I did this for several weeks. I was Little Girl Blue, but I was determined to triumph.

One day, the shopkeeper either came around and pitied me or decided he couldn’t bear the sight of me again, so he mail-ordered a pair of boys’ jeans for me. When I got the call, I was delirious with joy, visions of my ensemble to come dancing in my head.

Mother knows best

When I was about four years old, my parents and I went on a summer vacation at a resort.

My mother loved dressing me up for the various events of the day, pulling together ensembles for swimming, lunch, dinner, and whatever happened to be going on in between. As she dressed me and made her final adjustments to my outfit, she would stand me on an orange crate she must’ve found somewhere on the premises.

One night during this ritual, as I was later told, I began to scream, howling my head off, which led to all these people running into our room to see what sort of abuse my parents were doling out. I was shrieking like I was being attacked by a madman with an axe. Yet fellow guests and resort staff found me alive and well and dressed beautifully, as usual.

‘It doesn’t match! It doesn’t match! It doesn’t match! It doesn’t match! It doesn’t match! It doesn’t match!’

My mother had put a ribbon in my hair that didn’t match the rest of the outfit, and I just went bananas.

Later I realised, as usual, that Mama knows best, because now I hate matchymatchy. But I didn’t know any better then.

Love and marriage

I was married for 68 years. That is a long time to be together. Sometimes it felt like a century, sometimes it felt like a nanosecond. We had a wonderful relationship; the hows, whys, and whens of it are too private and painful for me to relay at the moment, having recently lost my darling.

I met Carl Apfel very briefly while I was on a vacation at Lake George. A few weeks later, I had lunch at the Plaza with my mother and an old beau who was the buyer of haute couture for Neiman Marcus in Dallas. As he walked me back to my office that afternoon, we passed by Bonwit Teller on Fifth Avenue. We stopped for a while to talk about what caught our eye in the window.

Iris and her husband 
Carl on their travels
Iris and her husband Carl on their travels

That night, as I came home, the phone was ringing off the hook. It was Carl.

‘I loved the hat you were wearing today,’ he said. Then he went on to compliment my wonderful suit, my bag, my shoes – the whole outfit. Then he asked me out.

I couldn’t figure it out at first, but then he explained he had been stuck on a bus that had broken down on Fifth Avenue in front of Bonwit Teller at the time I happened to be standing there.

We had a whirlwind courtship.

We had our first date on Columbus Day.

We got engaged on Thanksgiving Day.

I got blinged on Christmas Day.

Iris on honeymoon
Iris on honeymoon - Iris Apfel

We were married on Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1948. I wore a strapless, pink lace dress. I sketched it, and a woman – a couturier whom my mother used to make special things – made the dress. It was fitted with a full skirt, and it had a little cape, which I wore for the wedding. I kept it to wear on formal occasions. I thought spending a lot of money on a wedding dress only to wear it once and put it in a box was pretty impractical.

We were married at the Waldorf Astoria.

The ceremony was held there, with cocktails and dinner. It was a small affair, 120 people, but it was beautiful. And it was a pink wedding – I couldn’t have the decor clash with my dress!

‘Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon’ by Iris Apfel, £25, is published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. To order your copy for £19.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit