The Wonderful Iris Apfel

Apart from the occasional sighting of an image of this outrageously flamboyant elderly woman that popped up in the Australian media from time to time, I knew nothing about the wonderful Iris Apfel. That has all changed, thanks to Albert Maysles camera in the room documentary “Iris”. For those of you who may still be in the dark about this women, let me introduce you to her:

Iris is 93 in the film but has not let age weary her, and she is certainly not invisible! She has a unique and unerring eye for fabrics, colour, texture, patterns, accessories and layers all these elements together to create a look that just works. She is revered by fashion designers, fashion students, photographers, interior designers, and textile curators of all ages.

Iris, and her devoted husband Carl ( who turned 100 during the making of the film), were prominent New York interior designers – travelling the world to collect exotic items to decorate their clients’ homes. Dissatisfied with the furnishing fabrics at her disposal they started Old World Weavers in the early 1950s, a company that became a highly respected textile designer and manufacturer. Their interior design clients included the White House and numerous Presidential wives (a job that gives rise to one of the many moments of humour in this delightful film).

But it is through her eclectic fashion sense that Iris has risen to more global prominence. Iris had always been known within the industry, especially within America, but she came to be a cultural icon after the Met staged an exhibition of her fashion collection in 2005.

Iris is a bower bird, who draws her inspiration from couture through to tribal garments, religious vestments, and thrift shop items. Her costume and accessory collection fills their Park Avenue apartment, but she is slowly letting go as she donates items to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

The documentary follows Iris as she goes about her crowded daily life – lectures to fashion students, photo shoots, fashion workshops, collaborations with retail outlets and online sellers of her accessory designs, shopping ( and haggling) for yet more items to add to her collection. These observations are interspersed with interviews with industry figures, and with Iris and Carl themselves. Iris’s wit is on full display ( my personal favourite being her antipathy to plastic surgery, which according to her, makes women end up looking like Picasso women! And another comment about women in New York – they always wear black, that’s not fashion, it’s a uniform.)

Iris had always resisted being the subject of a film but changed her mind upon meeting the charming Albert Maysles, who is a rarely seen but quiet presence in the film. Just like in the much earlier Maysles documentary “Grey Gardens” (which I saw at MIFF this year), he obviously won her trust, and friendship. As it turned out, this was the last film he made – Albert Maysles died in March this year, aged 88 (David, his brother and collaborator, died in 1987).

If you want to be inspired and entertained, go and see this film. Four stars from me.

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