Witty, influential 93-year-old fashionista profiled in ‘Iris’
Less is definitely not more for Iris Apfel. A fixture on the New York City design scene for more than 60 years, the 93-year-old doyenne of style proves that fashion has no expiration date, adorning her frail-seeming body with a riot of prints, patterns, feathers, bangles and beads. With her matter-of-fact demeanor, wry wit, and easy laugh, she’s a thoroughly beguiling subject for the documentary Iris, the last film completed by legendary documentarian Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter; Grey Gardens), who died earlier this year.
Iris does not believe in dressing down. The film opens in darkness, with nothing but a distinctive clicking and clacking on the soundtrack. When the lights come up, this proves to be Iris at her toilette, adjusting multiple ropes of chunky beaded necklaces to show Maysles’ camera how she puts herself together. She favors ethnic beads layered until they resemble a breastplate, metal cuffs and Lucite bangles stacked to the elbow, vivid, colorful prints (all worn together, of course), topped off by her trademark enormous round glasses. The process of selecting clothes and accessories, of putting an outfit together, says Iris, “is more important than wearing it.” And more fun, too.
Known as “a legendary collector of fashion,” Iris and her husband Carl have traveled the world buying the bits and pieces of fabric, clothing and accessories that take up seven rooms in their Park Avenue apartment. Her vast collection of costume jewelry was featured in one of the most popular exhibitions ever mounted at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She still travels the city seeking out fun stuff (we see her buying imported African beaded bracelets in Harlem), and everything she wears she buys herself.
Maysles doesn’t waste a lot of time on backstory, but we piece together Iris’ ascendance in this world from her own words (and she is quite the entertaining, no-nonsense raconteur). As a young sales clerk from Queens at the famed Loehmann’s department store, she attracted the attention of Mrs. Loehmann, who told Iris, “You’re not pretty, you’ll never be pretty. But it doesn’t matter. You’ve got style.” After parlaying her acumen into a successful career as an interior designer, Iris and Carl founded the company Old World Weavers, trading in the ethnic and exotic fabrics they found around the world.
Smart and opinionated, Iris attends runway shows, stars in a photo shoot, and inspires a store window fashion display. She takes part in a training program for young aspiring designers, because, without training, she says, “You’re going to end up with a bunch of machine-made junk.” She doesn’t care much for modern trends (“Black is not really style, it’s a uniform”), but when longtime friend and fashion photographer Bruce Weber says he’s never seen her criticize other people’s clothes, she laughs. “It’s better to be happy than well-dressed!” she says.
She also speaks candidly on personal matters. Plastic surgery? “Oh, God, no!” she cries. “You end up looking like [a] Picasso!” she adds, pulling her cheek and chin in opposite directions. She says she never had children because “You can’t have everything. Something’s got to give,” and her work was far more important to her. Asked for her styling tips, she shrugs. “I don’t have any rules; I would always be breaking them, so it would be a waste of time.”
Time is something no one wants to squander in this movie. Maysles was in his late 80s when he shot it, but while all the participants on both sides of the camera understand that life is not eternal, there’s nothing elegiac about the film. We see Iris briskly confront the task of cleaning out the multi-room storage loft that houses the leftover stock from Old World Weavers; they’re finally ready to sell their collection of fabrics, antiques and objets d’art from around the world, with the idea that somebody else might as well enjoy them. Iris and their friends also hold a 100th birthday party for Carl. But there’s never any sense of grim death hanging over this movie. It’s all about celebrating life.
***1/2 (out of four)
With Iris Apfel and Carl Apfel. A documentary by Albert Maysles. A Magnolia Pictures release. Rated PG-13. 80 minutes. PHOTO: Albert Maysles’ documentary ‘Iris’ is a celebration of the colorful life and style of New York City’s fashion influencer Iris Apfel.