Iris Apfel is more than the sum of her parts in the same way a unicorn is not just a horse with a horn. She trails magic dust and casts a mysterious shadow in filmmaker Albert Maysles’ (“Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens”) outstanding valentine, “Iris,” the documentary pioneer’s last movie before he died in March at 88 years old.
By contrast, Apfel shows no signs of slowing down. At 93 years old, the pint-sized nonconformist with the signature oversized round glasses still trolls Harlem (albeit from a wheelchair and with a driver) in pursuit of the perfect addition to her madcap collection of contemporary fashion. (“My mother worshipped at the altar of the accessory,” she deadpans).
“I like to improvise,” she explains in the opening scene, as she vamps for the camera and concocts “another mad outfit” she might wear to a party. “I always think I do things like I’m playing jazz.” As she layers enormous amber and silver necklaces and bracelets onto her birdlike frame, the audience marvels as much at her ability to remain upright as at the final quirky ensemble.
Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Astoria, Queens, in 1921, Iris Barrell developed her fearless sense of individuality and style as a child, helping her fashion boutique owner mother dress windows and accompanying her importer father to jobs at Elsie de Wolfe’s legendary interior design studio. She studied fine arts at New York University and eventually began a fabulously successful interior design business.
Early on, a mentor singled her out and bluntly told her that although she wasn’t pretty, she had something more important because it would outlast her looks: she had style. Apfel has been taking that piece of advice to the bank ever since, inventing and re-inventing her unique self.
In 1948, she married Carl Patel, an advertising executive, and together they founded Old World Weavers, a fabric manufacturing firm, after Apfel couldn’t find the fabrics and furnishings she envisioned for her many high-end clients. The two spent over half a century traveling and collecting.
Their palatial Park Avenue apartment and Palm Beach home are brimming with the eclectic fruits of their shopping expeditions. The overflow is housed in a storage loft. In 2005, The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art approached Apfel. The 600-piece show, “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” traveled to various museums after its New York run, arriving at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in 2009.
Apfel fell in love with PEM. “It was the climax [of the show’s tour]. They have soaring ceilings and they did a really great job,” she remarks in the film. She subsequently bequeathed the entire show plus more to the museum, substantially expanding and modernizing its permanent textiles and fashion department.
The collection and its final resting place are important to Apfel. “This is a very personal collection. I wore almost everything in it. It’s nice to see where it’s going,” she says. An additional bequest will fund a fashion gallery in the PEM’s new wing that is slated to open in 2017.
Although several academic talking heads analyze and pay homage to Apfel’s pioneering contributions (“She is the perfect example of the intersection of fashion, interior design and art,” comments Margaret Russel, “Architectural Digest” editor), it is Apfel whose pithy asides cut to the chase.
Putting together the right outfit requires skill and chutzpah. “I’m brazen,” she explains as she bargains shamelessly with a street vendor for a bauble she cannot live without and then whips out her gold American Express card to pay for it. She is also serious with a firmly embedded work ethic. “It’s hard work. Everything I have, I have to go out and find,” she says.
Apfel’s credo is that fashion should be fun. “You might as well amuse people when you dress,” she comments as she pairs priceless tribal vestments with a plastic ladybug bracelet she found at a flea market. Her flamboyant and self-confident free spirit is infectious.
Although Apfel’s larger-than-life persona could devour the screen for the film’s 83 minutes, the moments when we glimpse her sweet and trusting relationship with director Maysles temper her nonstop chatter and activity. The few scenes when she silently turns to the camera are the film’s most intimate.
“Iris” is a playful, entertaining and beautifully shot film of a woman who has spent her life marching to her own drummer and, at age 93, is still living her dream. Recommended.
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