Iris Apfel: joyful iconoclast, who broke all the rules with incredible taste | Fashion


Where to begin. The lessons in how to dress, or the lessons in how to live? Iris Apfel’s 102 years were a masterclass in both.

Really, of course, there’s no debate. We start with the clothes, because the clothes are entirely unignorable. Not so much outfits, as living tableaux. A coat of gold-tipped duck feathers topped with a lei of turquoise pebbles at the neck. Embroidered Indian silk tunics with fringed suede trousers. Fuchsia satin boots and a banana-yellow tulle cape. Bangles stacked to the elbow, a slash of lipstick bright as apricot jam, those delicate, bird-like knuckles dusted with a clatter of sweetie-toned cocktail rings.

Every day, Apfel left the house dressed as a picture of joy. “Life is grey and dull,” she says, in her deliciously chewy New York accent, in Albert Maysles’ 2014 documentary about her life. “You might as well have a little fun dressing up.”

But despite the rainbow pandemonium of her wardrobe and the cacophony of the egg-sized nuggets of souk-bought gems that rattled as she walked, there was a purity to her. She had incredible taste, but no snobbery. She once explained that her passion for accessorising came from her mother, who taught her that “if you bought, for example, a simple little black dress, by changing the accessories, which are so transformative, you could make dozens of outfits out of the same basic piece.”

Apfel wore Dior haute couture with flea-market jewellery, layered a vintage Balenciaga coat over a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, mixed 19th-century ecclesiastical vestments with Topshop.

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As a designer and consultant she worked for H&M and for the White House – Mrs Nixon, apparently, was “lovely” – for Faye Dunaway and for Tommy Hilfiger. Her passion for beauty was democratic. Status, price tags, money – these were never the point. The pleasure came from joy. In a 2010 interview with the Observer, she explained that the first painting she ever bought, still hanging in her hallway, is probably by Velasquez, but that she had never had it authenticated, because if it really was she might be nervous to leave it hanging there, and what would be the point in that, since she wouldn’t enjoy it? Apfel didn’t dress like anyone else, because she didn’t think like anyone else. She was a true original.

And for all her iconoclasm, there was something august and stately about Apfel. She was a true aesthete, a deeply respected textile expert. You have to know the rules of style well to be able to break them with grace, and she did. She defied every rule of how a snowy-haired older woman should dress yet somehow retained an almost old-fashioned elegance.

There was method in the madness, as well as irreverent humour. “I think when you’re paying $15,000 for a dress you’re entitled to a pair of sleeves,” she said in 2015. “It makes me crazy. Because everybody knows that older women, no matter how much of a jock you are, you look like a horse’s arse in a strappy dress.”

There was wisdom behind those owlish glasses. “What you’ve got to do is live in the present, which is what I have always done,” was one of many soundbites every bit as splendid as her best looks. Her 102 years are a testament to the energising power of fashion and it is fitting that, when she went, it was with chic timing, in the middle of Paris fashion week. As she once said, “You only have one trip. You might as well enjoy it.”



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