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Iris Apfel, eye-catcher with kaleidoscopic wardrobe, dies at 102


Iris Apfel, a New York high society matron and interior designer who, late in life, knocked the socks off the straight fashion world with a brash bohemian style blending hippie vintage and haute couture, found treasures at flea markets and reveled in contradictions, died Friday at her home in Palm Beach, Florida. She was 102 years old.

Stu Loeser, a spokesperson for his estate, confirmed his death.

Calling herself a “geriatric starlet,” Ms. Apfel, in the ’80s and ’90s, set trends with loud, irreverent ensembles: a boxy, multi-colored Bill Blass jacket with a tie-dyed Hopi dance skirt and goatskin boots hairy; a fluffy red and green rooster feather evening coat with suede pants cut to the knee; a pink angora sweater set and a 19th-century Chinese brocade paneled skirt.

Her intentionally disjunctive accessories might be a bejeweled mask or a necklace of jade beads swinging down to her knees, a pewter purse shaped like a terrier, fur scarves wrapped around her neck like a bunch of pythons and, almost always, her signature armfuls of bracelets and owl glasses, as big as saucers.

She was tall and thin, with short silver hair and scarlet slashes on her lips and nails, a little old lady among the Fashion Week models and a genuine Noo Yawk merchant in a Harlem store or a Tunisian souk. Many called her garish, delusional, bizarre, even vulgar, in outfits like a gold-tipped duck feather cape and fuchsia satin Yves Saint Laurent thigh-high boots.

But she was right.

“When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else,” Ms. Apfel told Ruth La Ferla of the New York Times. in 2011 as she prepared to go on national television, selling scarves, bracelets and beads of her own creation on the Home Shopping Network.

For decades, starting in the 1950s, Ms. Apfel designed interiors for private clients like Greta Garbo and Estée Lauder. With her husband, Carl Apfel, she founded Old World Weavers, which sold and restored textiles, many of them to the White House. The Apfels have traveled to museums and bazaars around the world in search of textile creations. She also regularly added to her immense wardrobe collections in her Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan.

The Apfels sold their company and retired in 1992, but she continued to act as a consultant to the company and to be the otherworldly woman, a free and booming spirit known throughout the society and by fashion connoisseurs to ignore fashion dictates. parade in favor of its own cleverly contrasting styles.

In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, faced with the cancellation of an exhibition and the search for a last-minute replacement, made him a daring proposition: organize an exhibition of his clothes. The Met had exhibited pieces from designer collections before, but never an individual’s wardrobe.

The show “Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel collection” assembled 82 sets and 300 accessories in the museum’s Costume Institute: Bakelite bracelets from the 1930s, Tibetan cuff bracelets, a tiger-print traveling outfit of his own design, a Mongolian lamb and squirrel husky coat from Fendi on display a mannequin crawling from an igloo.

“It’s not a collection,” Ms. Apfel said. “It’s a raid on my closet. I always thought that to show at the Met you had to be dead.

Harold Koda, the curator who helped organize the exhibition, said: “To dress this way, one must have an educated visual sense. It needs courage. I keep thinking: don’t try this at home.

Soon the show was the talk of the town. Amid an avalanche of publicity, students of art, design and social history flocked to galleries with crowds of limousines, busloads of tourists and classes of chattering children. Carla Fendi, Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld have become aware of this.

“A rare museum look at an arbiter of fashion, not a designer,” the Times called the show, adding: “Her approach is so inventive and brash that it has rarely been seen since Diana Vreeland put on her exotic cachet on the pages of Vogue.

Almost overnight, Ms. Apfel became an international pop fashion celebrity — appearing in magazines and ad campaigns, grilled in columns and blogs, sought after for conferences and seminars. The University of Texas named her a visiting professor. The Met exhibit traveled to other museums and, like a rock star, attracted thousands to its public appearances.

Crowds showed up to her bookstore signing after the 2007 publication of “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” a beautiful book about her wardrobe and jewelry by photographer Eric Boman.

“Iris,” a documentary by Albert Maysles, premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2014, and in 2015 it was seen by enthusiastic audiences in America and Britain. Times film critic Manohla Dargis called him a “the insistent rejection of monocultural conformity” and “a delicious revelation about life, love, statement glasses, bracelets the size of tricycle tires and the art of making the grandest entrance.”

In 2016, Ms Apfel was seen in a television advertisement for the French car DS 3, became the face of the Australian brand Blue Illusion and began a collaboration with the start-up WiseWear. A year later, Mattel created a one-of-a-kind Barbie doll in her likeness. It wasn’t for sale.

In 2018, she published “Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon,” an autobiographical collection of thoughts, anecdotes and observations on life and style. At the age of 97 in 2019, she signed a modeling contract with global agency IMG.

Iris Barrel was born on August 29, 1921, in Astoria, Queens, the only daughter of Samuel Barrel, owner of a glass and mirror company, and his Russian-born wife, Sadye, owner of a fashion boutique. Iris studied art history at New York University and art at the University of Wisconsin, worked for Women’s Wear Daily, apprenticed with interior designer Elinor Johnson, and opened his own design company.

She married Carl Apfel, an advertising executive, in 1948. They had no children. Her husband died in 2015 at the age of 100.

Their Old World weavers had restored curtains, furniture, draperies and other fabrics in the White House for nine presidents, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton.

Ms. Apfel’s apartments in New York and Palm Beach were overflowing with furniture and knick-knacks that could have come from a Luis Buñuel movie: porcelain cats, stuffed toys, statues, ornate vases, gilded mirrors, fake fruit, parrots plush, paintings by Velázquez and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, a mannequin on an ostrich.

The fashion designer Duro Olowu told the Guardian in 2010 that Ms. Apfel’s work had a universal quality. “It’s not a trend,” he said. “It appeals to a certain kind of joy in everyone.”


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