Finding non-standardised beauty within the fashion industry seems an impossible task to set, but in the quirky style of Iris Apfel, the late Albert Maysles found his answer. Iris is well known as a ‘rare bird’ of fashion, she’s a style icon for accessory fans and couture lovers. You might have previously seen her in the much-adored documentary and blog about the mature women of fashion, Advanced Style (2013), amongst the many brilliant stylists of New York streets. Maysles’ in depth following of this woman’s show stopping personality allows for a more refined glimpse at her impulsive fashion sense.
Iris Apfel’s amazing life as an owner of the New World Weavers company with her remarkable husband Carl (a marriage of seventy years) go some way towards explaining her passion for colour and texture. As specialists they travelled the world finding patterns from history that could be lovingly recreated for Iris’ interior design business. Of course, the patterns ranged from anything between intense tribal prints in full multicolour glory and delicate East Asian landscape pieces in royal hues. The variety of imagery she experienced on her twice a year travels to hidden Europe has an obvious hold over how she views the possibilities of glamour and decoration.
How she pieces together her unique and outrageous outfits is both distinctive and wildly fascinating. In a woman of her age, she defines her elaborate upkeep simply as ‘play’. She lovingly talks of dressing up; not caring about going to the party or who was at the party, only caring about getting ready for the party. Yet she’s had her fair share of ridiculous parties in her time and is still very much alive and known on the New York art and fashion circuits. We see Bill Cunningham, the renowned fashion street photographer, admiring her evening attire for instance. She talks of loving the colour of Harlem and of Manhattan disappointing her with all its plain black outfit assemblers. What matters to Iris is what she was told as a young woman: “You’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter, you have style.”
Iris still wears her most easily recognisable trait – her massive dark circular glasses – which truly individualise her image. After all, Maysles has a penchant for representing the most distinctly individual of subjects. Behind all the layers of beads and fabric Maysles offers us a glimpse of the incredibly busy life Iris leads. The nonstop phone calls she attends to on mobile and landline seem worthy of a full time PA to manage, but she takes it all in her stride. Described as a person who would sink into depression when she wasn’t busy, she’s delighted and ever grateful to give talks to students in a university programme she helped set up, or guest appear at events. Apart from her image, none of these things would be immediately apparent if they weren’t so aptly summed up by Maysles.
Maysles always manages to capture the best side of his subjects and get under the skin of what it means to be them and do what they do, remarkably without pigeonholing. I imaging it was his easy approach and love of his work that allowed him to draw so close to his subjects. Somehow the process of Maysles’ filming doesn’t bother Iris, not quite fly on the wall of course, as she constantly engages with the lens bearer and enjoys showcasing her outfit options. The resonating theme that Iris imparts from her years of experience in style is simply to be an individual, and proud of it. If there ever had to be a well-collaborated swansong for Maysles, Iris was it.