DFR: Daily Fashion Report

Wednesday, February 1, 2006
Masters of Fashion: Style Iconoclast Iris Barrel Apfel

Transcription of Video Interview Part 1:

Iris Apfel being interviewed by Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner (left) with Iris Apfel (right) in her living room. Photo by Muriel Geny Triffaut.

On Wednesday, January 18th, I had the privilege of interviewing Iris Barrel Apfel in her New York apartment, as part of our ongoing 'Masters of Fashion' Video Interview Series which includes discussions with some of the most influential names in American fashion. Past interviews in the series were with Elsa Klensch, Ralph Rucci, Grace MIrabella, Geoffrey Beene, Rose Marie Bravo, Arthur Elgort, Ruth Finley, and Bill Cunningham. This interview is made possible by our sponsor, Fashion GPS.

Intro: I am Marilyn Kirschner the Editor-in-Chief of LookOnline.com. Today our very special guest is Iris Barrel Apfel, a fashion iconoclast and true original whose colorful individualistic and exuberant style was celebrated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, in an exhibit, ‘Rara Avis’ which ran from September 13th through January 22nd. It’s groundbreaking, has became a must see, and is being talked about by everybody in the industry.

Marilyn Kirschner: Fashion Week is only days away. How do you feel about being an 84-year-old fashion icon that is being touted by many of the world’s most influential designers as one of the most important influences for their upcoming fall 2006 collections?

Iris Apfel: “It’s hard for me to comprehend and to believe…it’s like some sort of a fantasy…it’s great, I mean…. I have been doing the same thing since practically childhood, I started to do my own shopping when I was 12, so after 70 years, it’s kind of a kick in the head. It could have never happened, so…better late than never.

M.K: What were the influences early on that made you love fashion so? Was it a fashionable mother ?

I.A: Yes, I had a very chic mother, she loved clothes and she subsequently went into the fashion business and opened a small chain of boutiques and left me to my own devices more or less. Of course, Grandma was there and we always had people to take care of me but… Since I am 12 years old, if I wanted any clothes I had to go and find them myself because she didn’t have any time. So it was wonderful training, it was difficult, I’ll never forget my first experience, and it’s made me a very, very good shopper. I think all young women should be exposed and not just given unlimited charge accounts and told, “This is how much you can spend, go out and buy an outfit”. Today, with places like H&M and all the discount stores, there’s really no reason not to be well dressed.

M.K.: That’s true. Were you always mixing high end with low end?

I.A.: Always

M.K.: Was it one of your signatures?

I.A.: Always

M.K.: And did people think that you were perhaps a little off your rocker because of your imaginative put- togethers?

I.A.: They must have but it never really bothered me one way or another, but…obviously, they must have.

M.K.: And did you always like having people look at you because you stood out in the crowd?

I.A.: No, I never really think about it, I ‘m not like that, I have so many other things to do, I’m not a fashionista, and that is not my life. I love beautiful clothes, and I appreciate them, but…I’ve been in business all my life, I built a business, I’m involved in a lot of charities and all kinds of stuff…and….you know, just being a clotheshorse is not my idea of heaven.

M.K.: So you started as an Interior Decorator?

I.A: I was a Vogue Prix de Paris Girl, if anybody remembers back that far…and I really wanted to go into editorial fashion. So my very first job was a copygirl for Women’s Wear Daily when they were down on 13th street. And I lasted there a couple of months. It kept me in shape, and that’s about all because I was running up and down the stairs, but I realized quickly enough, being very bright, that I’d never get any place because all of the editors, at that point, were middle aged…they were too young to die and too old to get pregnant, so I’d never get a shot. So eventually I left…and through a series of strange events I ended up in the Interior Design business.

M.K.: About 50 years ago, you and your husband Carl, founded one of the most well respected companies on the planet in terms of textiles and materials….Old World Weavers.

I.A.: Yes, yes…we had a small company that we started…actually we began it out of a suitcase because we didn’t know if that would work and we didn’t have any funds. I designed these things and Carl would go around during his lunch hour with a suitcase which he put on wheels…if we had packaged that we wouldn’t have had to do anything else. And…it went well, we got some very nice orders, and we subsequently decided that we would go into business ourselves. It was very colorful and very fun because our first big order came with one of the icons in the industry, Dorothy Draper. She was a very large woman, and she had a very large trestle table in her studio, and it took Carl months to get an interview with her, and I have to go back to tell you that the bag, the suitcase, was getting very heavy, because he had so many samples and silk (our silks were just incredible, they were 18,000 ends to lift - they could just pull a truck), and he had loads and loads of heavy antique Dupioni taffeta, and I said “Rather than carry them all, it’s getting too cumbersome, let me go to the mill and make you…what we used to call a long “blanket”.

So I arranged to do about 14 inches of each color and I would grade them and in a grand gesture he threw it across Madame’s table and she said “This is just what I’ve looked for all my life young man, this is the first intelligently scaled stripe I’ve ever seen.” and she said “I’m doing a job for a colonel who has this marvelous house in the Bahamas and he has 18 foot ceilings and I need horizontal stripes and I can’t find so can you make me 300 yards? The following day we had a visit from a Sara Fredericks, who was a retailing icon. She was doing her house and had mentioned that she needed fabric, and a mutual friend who was an antiques dealer said “you have to go and see these two young people who are just starting out”…she came to the apartment and fell in love with something and ordered 250 yards…so we said “ok we’re going into business” and that’s how it happened.

We took a 3 story walk up on 57th street, which I thought would be more chic than any place since we were in the middle of all the antiques dealers, and you had to walk up three double flights of stairs… but all of the so-called ‘W’ ladies came, they all found out about it, Mrs. Marjorie Meriwether Post among them and she became a very good client. I have a very funny story about her. She bought a silk called “Hillwood” for her house in Washington, it’s just beautiful, in the estate section where all the embassies are, and we finished the order. Early one morning, the telephone rang and I answered, and she said “This is Mrs. Post and I must speak with Mr. Apfel immediately!” And I thought Oh my God what happened? So Carl got on the phone and she said, “Mr. Apfel, last night my drapes were delivered, they are absolutely stunning. They are hung in my sitting room and I am on top of an 18 ft ladder, examining them. You have also made me exquisite silk fringe, but I must know, how many little balls are there supposed to be in a running yard?” and my husband thought for a minute and he said, “Mrs Post, every day I eat your Raisin Bran , can you tell me please how many raisins I am supposed to find in a tablespoon?” And she said, “Touché! Mr. Apfel. My God, I am a foolish woman and I better get down from that ladder before I break my neck. Excuse me I love it and that’s the way it should be”.

Everybody came (including Estee Lauder) and everything we did then was custom made, which of course became too cumbersome to make. We subsequently decided to go to Europe to buy and design and look for antique fabrics which had always been or were the basis of our collection, they were not knock-offs or…what’s the word…. suggestions, but were actual replicas, and we would go all over trying to find the proper mill to so that it was just like it was in the 17th or 18th century.

M.K.: Precise and perfect. Do you think the relationship between fashion and home décor is underrated or do you think it’s always been proven through the years and centuries?

I.A.: Oh through the years it’s been proven, because the beautiful French dresses are of the same fabric as the ladies sat on. I mean they go hand in hand, it’s part of a lifestyle.

M.K.: And in the cover story “What Iris Wore, A Style Original”, by Ruth La Ferla, which ran in the Thursday Style section of The New York Times on November 17th, 2005, it was mentioned that Ralph Lauren is apparently going to be using a lot of upholstery fabrics for fall 2006 as an inspiration from your exhibit.

I.A.: Oh that would be very nice. I would hope so. We have sold upholstery fabrics over the years. Oscar de La Renta has bought a lot of our things, Geoffrey Beene has bought some, Bill Blass…. Ralph Rucci. As a matter of fact, the boots, the high over the knee boots in the exhibition, if anyone has seen it, are of an upholstery fabric that Ralph designed and Mr. Blahnik made. And I just had to have them.

M.K.: One of the things I love is the Traveling Ensemble (a matching three piece outfit fabric comprised of a coat, a pair of boots, and an oversized satchel) made from a heavy upholstery-like animal pattern.

I.A.: It is in a fabric that I designed, that was made in the early sixties.

M.K.: All I could think of when I saw this is how nowadays, when you travel and see how most people look at airports, they are such slobs. I couldn’t get this image out of my mind and I was hysterical. I also thought that it was so amazing, was that it showed a lot about how exacting and precise your aesthetic is, in both home decor, and fashion sense. It’s all very, very consistent.

I.A.: I don’t dress like that when I travel now. I do think you have to look like the crowd so I always travel now in jeans.

M.K.: Things are a lot different now. By the way, speaking of jeans, I read somewhere that you refer to yourself as the “world’s oldest living teenager” and that you are constantly looking for jeans right now. Are there any particular brands that you like?

I.A.: Well I like men’s jeans, they fit me very well.

M.K.: What makes?

I.A.: Well any kind, I have a lot of Levi’s…I used to buy a lot of jeans in Target or places like that…I can’t remember the names. I also have beautiful designer jeans.

M.K.: Some were in the exhibit.

I.A.: Very few. They were going to do a big section on jeans but we had so much to choose from. They decided that we should go for fantasy. Harold said people don’t want to come to the Museum and look at jeans or little gray flannel suits, even though those are what I wear most of the time because I like to accessorize them and they’re easy and practical for working which is what I do. I had nothing to do with the curatorial process. And actually, they came looking for accessories, the exhibit was conceived as a small accessory production. It was going to be a vitrine Show….

M.K.: When did they first approach you with the idea of doing a show?

I.A.: It was just about a year before the show. The Met decided that they wanted to put an emphasis now in collecting accessories. Because accessories are very important and they don’t have as splendid a collection as they do of clothing which is second to none…

M.K.: I see…

I.A.: They also felt that it was the appropriate time because very few people are buying couture anymore and designer clothing is really beyond many, many people…but almost everybody, with a little scrimping and saving can have an accessory designer piece, so it could be a bag or a scarf, or a pair of eyeglasses, but there you are. So we were going to show accessories and they were hoping that would influence the process of their collecting. And they came to the house and had the idea that actually it would be better if I would be willing to accessorize a few mannequins so people could see how things could be put together. And I said no problem. And then they began to peek in the closets. Because, I emphasize, I do not have a clothing collection. I never bought to collect, I bought to wear.

Everything I have in the show has been worn many, many times and I hope I will be able to wear them again. And I know people who have collections tend to keep them on a pedestal. I have a friend who has a brilliant collection of over 15,000 pieces and she gave me a look at it and she was pulling this divine Geoffrey Beene dress, and I said “Oh God, you must have had fun wearing that!” and she was horrified! She said “Wear it? I never wear anything in my collection, you don’t do that”. I said “Well you don’t but I do so I guess I don’t have a collection”. Anyway they kept looking and pulling things out… we had no place to put it, I had to push all the furniture aside in this place, I bought ten pipe racks….

M.K.: How many curators were here?

I.A.: Two…Harold Korda and Stephane Houy-Towner were the ones that worked with me. And we refined, and we refined and they picked what they liked, and carted it off to the Met and again it was twice as much as we have now. From 10 mannequins it went to 82….and I had the privilege of accessorizing each one. They said “We pick them but you have absolute carte blanche… “

M.K.: Did you do accessorize each outfit as you had worn it at one point?

I.A.: Yes.

M.K.: Did you sometimes improvise and make things up as you went along thinking “Oh I would have worn it that way?”

I.A.: It was a combination because sometimes, I have an accessory that I didn’t have fifty years ago and there could be an improvement…and some of the shoes have worn out and some of the beads have fallen apart….

M.K.: So you had to revisit your closet again.

I.A.: Yes and we had a lot of fun because I am a very disorganized abnormal buyer. I don’t go out when I need something, I haven’t got much time to shop so every once in a while when I get the call, I go dashing and then anything that I see and like, whether I need it or not, I buy. Most of the time it doesn’t go with anything else, and I hang it in the closet until it does. As a matter of fact, Harold was hysterical because in between all these pieces we found….oh may be a half dozen pieces that I had bought…oh 20, 30 years ago….with the tag still on…and which I had never worn, so may be some day I will find a way to wear them…

M.K.: And the idea of making the mannequins look like you? Whose idea was that? That was brilliant to put the glasses on…brilliant….

I.A.: I believe it was Harold and Stephane…it was a joint collaboration.

M.K.: It’s too bad it opened right in the middle of last Fashion Week because I didn’t get to see it until much later… and I’m not the only one. By the way, how many times have you walked around the exhibit yourself?

I.A.: Well, I do go back because people ask me to “please meet them” and take them about…. Stephane is wonderful and gives a great tour and he gives a much better tour than I do…I am very excited because this coming Friday, Joyce Jameson, an idol of mine who has called many times to see when she could come is meeting us at the museum and we’re going to take her around.

M.K.: What are the most surprising bi products of this exhibit? Offers, invitations, requests that have come your way because of the publicity and accolades the exhibit has received?

I.A.: The most surprising thing is that I have become this geriatric starlet. That knocks me out….

M.K.: As I’ve said, “move over Kate Moss, there is a new fashion icon in town and she’s about 50 years your senior.”

I.A.: At least I am not on drugs, and I don’t need to go through rehab.

M.K.: You mentioned that you have had a few job offers?

I.A.: Oh yes, all kinds of things have come my way, somebody asked me to star in a video for her, an Indian singer who is very good…she asked me to do that…yesterday…Lindsay Lohan was at the show (she is quite a fashionista) and she went crazy and she wants to meet me and she asked Stephane if I would be her stylist….

M.K.: Unbelievable!

I.A.: Ralph Lauren came with some of his designers and he was so admiring and so sweet…and I am sure it was a joke but after walking through the first gallery he looked at me and he said “Hey would you like a job?” which was funny…. I have been asked to write a piece in Vogue, I have been asked to do an article for Destination, I have been asked by several people to do a book, and I’ve been on television umpteen times and on international television which I find very amusing. We’ve done all of the Caribbean and South America…., Germany, Austria and Switzerland …the Russians want me to do something, as do the Italians, but the communication department tells me they are so disorganized they can’t get it together.

I've been interviewed by the Style Network and by Dana Tyler on CBS, oh my God all these things have opened up. I have met all these wonderful people, and I have a whole collection of fan mail. I just cannot believe it, I really can’t. I’m thinking this is all ridiculous, why would this be happening to me at this stage of my life, when I should be put out to pasture?! I still can’t believe that I am here sitting with you! And to be in the Pantheon you put me in with people like Ralph Rucci, Bill Cunningham, and people like that…I don’t deserve it.

M.K.: Oh yes you do. Do you think your talent can be taught? Do you think that most or every woman can have a little piece of what it is that you have or do you think it is so inbred in a person that you either have it or don’t?

I.A.: Well, that’s what I really think (the latter) and Harold had a lovely little piece in the exhibit that urged, “This is a very tricky thing, don’t try it at home”. However, people can do something else that I have tried and I am very grateful…the first week of the show a very nice lady came over and she said “Thank you Mrs. Apfel, thank you, thank you” and I said “Why are you thanking me?” And she said “Well first for the show, but frankly, you’ve given me courage…20 years I had this mad moment and I bought this insane necklace that I brought home, tried on, screamed and put back in the box….Now that I’ve come to your show, I’ve taken it out and people are admiring it.”

M.K. Do people recognize you on the street and approach you? I.A.: Oh yes, German television wanted to film me shopping at H&M and Bergdorf Goodman…it’s interesting….the show has touched a pretty wide audience….the people at H&M loved it..they certainly are a different segment of society than those who shop at Bergdorf…people…women all tell me that they feel liberated….I’ll show you a letter that I got yesterday…this lady said that she collected fabrics and that she has something she was going to put on a bedspread…now it is an evening cape. And this tweed that was going to be something else was now a walking suit….Hurray, hurray…

M.K.: You look absolutely amazing, regardless of age…better than most people…What do you think is the most common mistake most women over a certain age make?

I.A.: I think they are trying too hard to look young. Coco Chanel once said that what makes a woman look old is trying desperately to look young….and it’s so silly, why should one be ashamed to be 84? Why do you have to say that you’re 52? Nobody’s going to believe you anyway … they get their faces done but their hands are still creepy..I mean it’s ridiculous. Why be such a fool? There’s nothing wrong and I think it’s nice that you got to be so old….It’s a blessing.

M.K.: But don’t you think most older women are urged to wear boring beige from head to toe and to sort of fade into the background?

I.A.: Not only older women, younger women too.

M.K.: There’s too much good taste around, don’t you agree?

I.A.: Absolutely. A lovely lady, Jessica Kagan Cushman who makes jewelry, working in scrimshaw on ivory, gave me this wonderful bracelet that subsequently someone stole from me at a restaurant when I took it off for just seconds. Anyway, it said something like, “Fashion can be bought. Style you must own”. You can teach people good taste and you can teach people to be tolerant and liberated and open…you can even teach them how to be more courageous…but there is a certain ‘something’ that can’t be taught…Can you teach someone to paint like Michelangelo? You can’t. It is an art form.

M.K.: It’s having an amazing eye and intuitively knowing….

I.A,: Yes… I just feel something…I had a client once when I was in the interior design business…who was a very untutored lady…she had no schooling…but she had inherent great taste…and so one day I said “Colleen, why did you pick that?” she said “You know why? Feels good here”. (And Iris motioned with her hands) I got to feel when I see something it is a physical, chemical sense…it’s not intellectual. It’s just something….

M.K.: I always think of Diana Vreeland’s quote, “Bad taste is better than no taste”…Don’t you think that a little bit of bad taste is what makes fashion interesting?

I.A.: Oh absolutely! I think that when you’re so well put together, I mean like so many homes today…and I hate what is done today, like standard equipment…and that’s what it is…. everybody has to have the basic big sofa with the two French chairs and the Coromandel screen…it’s just cookie-cutter.

M.K.: Well talk about cookie-cutter, and since we are now entrenched in the red carpet season…what do you think of the typical and predictable “red carpet style”? The whole idea that it “takes a village” to make a star what with the stylist, the long gown showing a lot of boobs, and borrowed diamonds…By the way, did you see the Golden Globes?

I.A.: Yes, but there was very little jewelry in that show. I thought the girls looked dreadful…

M.K.: Was there anyone that you thought looked good?

I.A.: Yes there was, what’s her name?.... S. Epatha Merkerson, the lovely black actress on ‘Lackawanna Blues’..who said she was 53…She had a simple long sleeved black dress and she had diamond earrings and she looked stunning. She looked appropriate and she looked great, and she wasn’t trying to make a statement… These people don’t even look appropriate. They look silly. The stylists, I think, should be tarred and fathered or sent to rehab…. It’s quite awful…these girls, evidently have no education and no frame of reference, but …it was really sad, I thought that was one of the worst….

Continue to Part 2 of the interview...

(Transcription and initial editing by Muriel GenyTriffaut)