Masters of Fashion: Style Iconoclast Iris Barrel Apfel

Part 2: Transcription of Video Interview:

Iris Apfel being interviewed by Marilyn Kirschner

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

M.K.: What irks you most about fashion today? What do you see that bothers you most about it?

I.A.: I think some of it is sort of insane and some of it is not for grown women…There are lots of things that would look amusing on a 12 year old, but then you see some ladies of a certain age trying to wearing it…you know, down to here…it’s all so ridiculous.

M.K.: Is there any particular trend right now that you are seeing on the street that you don’t understand at all? Anything current?

I.A.: Well on the streets in New York in the summer, everybody looks like they’re going to the shower…the flip flops…it’s so awful.

M.K.: What is it your summer uniform when you’re in town? What would you wear on a really hot day?

I.A.: Well I live in jeans usually so I wear a lot of jeans, they’re cool, and they’re warm they’re everything. Or I wear linen and a shirt or simple trousers…

M.K.: And you always accessorize…Do you ever go out without accessories?

I.A.: Well not really. I feel naked. Sometimes when it’s very cold, I must admit I cannot wear silver jewelry because it gets too cold and I cannot wear my silver eyeglasses because it burns my nose…but I always wear something. I couldn’t live without my accessories.

M.K.: New York Fashion Week is upon us. I know that you’re a customer and friend and always go to Ralph Rucci’s shows. Are there any other invitations that you’ve received?

I.A.: No, nobody invites me. I know Ralph so he’s always invited me…But I met Michael Vollbracht (head of design for Bill Blass) who is adorable and who was a guest at a luncheon given in my honor in Palm Beach, and he came…and so we sort of fell in love, he’s a very, very nice man….very talented. We are residents of Palm Beach….but we keep this place because we come and go…I am still working…we sold our company to Stark Carpets 13 and ½ years ago…but we’re still there as consultants.

M.K.: I just want to go back to the idea of the designers. I know that you wear Ralph Rucci’s clothes. What other contemporary designers’ clothes do you wear?

I.A.: I.A.: I love Gianfranco Ferre…Geoffrey Beene I adored…although he is gone I know they’re trying to carry on…I hope it works, I hope it works…. I like architectural clothes…I also like amusing clothes and I like Moschino, and I like Gauthier, and I like Krizia…I still wear my Galanoses I think Jimmy is just the greatest….so wonderful and self-effacing…and Norell….I love Norell…I have everybody’s clothes because everybody has something that I like….but there are designers that I like but…they don’t make my kind of clothes…

M.K.: Are there any kinds of clothes or styles that categorically, you can honestly say, “I would never wear that?”

I.A.: Well Madame Gres was certainly marvelous but her chiffon dresses are just not for me. I don’t wear Chanel because I feel that..if I had a granddaughter I would be wearing her. They just don’t hang right. That doesn’t take away from the fact that they are brilliant they are wonderful, but I am happy in architectural clothes. I have a number of Yves Saint Laurent things…This (referring to her black leather tunic shirt) is YSL…Then I buy a lot of things that don’t have labels. When I went to H&M I fell in love with a fake fur and a skirt and they were both on sale…I paid $29 for the skirt and $79 for the fake fur.

I.A.: I don’t care what people think…I learned a long time ago…I was 19 and had a very traumatic experience….and I learned that I have to go to bed with myself at night and that I have to please myself…and as long as I don’t go out of my way to offend anybody that I love, upset my mother or my husband…I’ll do my own thing. And if the public doesn’t like it, it’s their problem, not mine.

M.K.: Is there anything you ever put on and looked at yourself in the mirror and said, “Nope, I can’t go out with this, it’s too over the top”?

I.A.: No, very rarely. Stephane always says that I’m ‘controlled baroque’. Harold says that underneath all my madness there is some sort of Zen ethics….I try to be controlled, I try to stop….Tomorrow I have to do something for ‘Paper’ and I guess I have to go over the top but then again I don’t know what that is…I’m not into that downtown scene….I guess we’ll come up with something…

M.K.: You are not a trend follower. Are there any retail stores that you think do particularly well in drawing people in?

I.A.: Bergdorf Goodman was always wonderful…Barneys brings in a certain segment of society…I have never been able to shop there…Years ago Barneys’ clothes only fit smaller women and years ago almost everything was black, beige or taupe. I like color. They do have a wonderful shoe department there…

I don’t have much luck believe it or not. One woman almost came to blows with me at the exhibit because she said “Oh they said you worked but you don’t”…I said “what do you mean I don’t work?”… "Well how could you possibly work and have accumulated all this? This is a life’s work." So I said “Well I work, I did this on the fly…I don’t go shopping too often…It’s like an excursion when I do……

M.K.: Do you miss the 26th street flea market?

A.I.: Oh yes, well all the flea markets are finished now…it’s sad, it’s sad…Everything is gone really…I miss a lot but what can you do? You go on….

M.K.: Can you recall the least amount of money you spent on something that was really a true gem? Something that you recognized but that the seller didn’t? (Iris had told me about a tweed and leather Bonnie Cashin coat she paid $7 for at a D.C. flea market)

I.A.: Oh yes I have a lot of things like that. Oh there’s something I just found in Loehmann’s….. For my birthday I go to Loehmann’s because I get a 15% discount, it’s very exciting…and I found this wonderful, wonderful completely beaded coat from Ralph Lauren and it is so gorgeous …all the way down to the floor and I won’t tell you its price because it’s ridiculous…it’s divine and very Marlene Dietrich with crystalline beads on white chiffon…and it was way too long although I am fairly tall…and I went to three dressmakers and they all said they were afraid to tackle it and I didn’t know what to do…Ralph Rucci said he’d fix it but I didn’t want to trouble him…then I met Mr. Ralph Lauren and when I told him he said “Oh we’ll fix it”. So it’s now being fixed. It’s not like years ago but you can still get very good buys….

M.K.: You are ageless. What are your beauty and diet secrets? What do you use?

I.A.: Oh I don’t have any. I wear no make up, just lipstick.

M.K.: Moisturizer?

I.A.: My mother used to say that I should use it, she died and I promised I would….I don’t do any of this, it’s awful.

M.K.: Exercise?

I.A.: I am very active but I don’t do organized exercise. I should. And when I am in Palm Beach…we have a little gym and a trainer in the building and she gives wonderful classes and I go down every morning but I must admit…since we’ve started the show which was like seven months ago…I haven’t done anything.

M.K.: What is your ‘must read’ each month?

I.A.: I don’t have any “must”…really. I always look at New York Magazine when I am here to see what’s going on…I do everything that inspires and moves me…. M.K.: No fashion magazines?

I.A.: No, I lost my interest in what is going on unfortunately…and I don’t understand a lot of magazines, I don’t understand showing $20,000 dresses on 14 year old models…. Doesn’t make any sense to me. I went to a show in Palm Beach recently which had beautiful clothes…but I had never seen such itsy bitsy models… I asked, “What nursery did you rob? And was told, “We really had a problem because our samples were so small, our regular in-house girls couldn’t fit into them”. The girls must have been 14 and 15 years old… Now how can an intelligent middle aged or older woman who is a bit buxom relate? I said “isn’t that self-defeating?” Obviously not…I think women should learn to look in the mirror…

M.K.: When I walked around the exhibit there were groups of women who were talking out loud and their conversations were unbelievable, because most of them could not believe that you actually wore those clothes out. Many said, “Oh she probably designed that just for the exhibit….” They did not understand that these were actually your clothes worn by you in almost the exact way they were exhibited. I was just wondering if in your travels to the museum you heard any conversations like that?

I.A.: Oh yes many times…People asked questions like that all the time or they asked “where do I keep my clothes?” “did I wear everything?”

M.K.: And you keep everything in your apartment?

I.A.: Oh yes. It’s not always organized, sometimes it’s under the bed but it’s here.

M.K.: And you never had to catalog anything?

I.A.: Oh I don’t do that, it’s in my computer (head)…

M.K. When I was at the Met, it was on the Thursday afternoon that cover story about you had come out in the Style section of The New York Times and observed a lot of people walking. I asked one of the guards if he had noticed more people and said “yes” so they seem to be very well aware of your exhibit. Do you think the guards helped your cause there?

I.A.: Oh the guards were wonderful, because the first few weeks we had no PR at all and it wasn’t being advertised as it had no sponsor and if the guards weren’t so kind we probably would have had a smaller audience. They loved it which flattered me to no end because they see shows all the time...and one guard would tell his friend who was in the Chinese collection…or he would tell his friend who was in the European Collection and before we knew it we had a whole support system. And people would be looking at a beautiful painting and the guard would say “If you really want to see a good show go downstairs to the Costume Institute”. The same thing happened at the desk, people would ask for instructions… “Please tell me how to get to the Prague show” and they were told, “if you want to do yourself a favor after the Prague show go down and see the costume collection”.

And everybody who saw it…it’s incredible, they all brought people, they all came back with several friends…and it just mushroomed. The thing that’s incredible many people have come 2, 3, 4….I had a man who told me he’s been back seven times…It seems to have touched a nerve. It seems to be something that people have wanted for a very long time and they are so happy that it’s happened. The women feel liberated and we have lots of men coming. Women come and tell me that they’re so happy that their husbands come and have a good time and don’t complain. Some of the men have asked to come back a second time.

M.K.: I was recently at a CFDA party and I spoke with several designers and I had mentioned that I was interviewing you and they all said “Oh my God she’s so fabulous, I want to send her something…”

I.A.: Oh that would be marvelous! Michele Stein (a well known fashion figure who reps several top Milanese designers) wanted me to come and see the show…and asked me to ring her up at my first opportunity to take her through along with her staff….And she said “This is absolutely incredible…I just got off the phone with Romeo Gigli and he told me that his next collection is based on your show”…I was really flattered, it’s incredible.

M.K.: So you might have to go to Paris and see his fall collection…maybe the models will all come out wearing your black framed owl glasses…

I.A.: I have a pair of Romeo’s black trousers with white beads…

M.K.: When he first started showing his collections in Milan in the eighties…it was just incredible.

I.A.: It was very magical. I love wild imagination that’s under control. I don’t like what some of these wacky people are doing now but I do like when designers take care…That’s what I admire so much about Ralph….everything is so beautifully made…I mean it’s just gorgeous.

M.K.: It’s just like Geoffrey Beene. You could turn it inside out.

I.A.: Well if you want to turn things inside out you should take a trip to Galanos…His insides are sometimes more beautiful than outside….

M.K.: I remember his shows when I was at Harper’s Bazaar and he used to take a suite at the Plaza Hotel and painstakingly show everything by himself.

I.A.: I have been taken to one of those shows by an old friend who was in the fashion business and I was thrilled to pieces and that night I went to a party and Geoffrey Beene happened to be there…and there was a couple of very young fashion writers….And they said to me, “we went to the weirdest show today…there was no big music and everything was so quiet and the models were just walking with little signs with just numbers, isn’t that strange?” I said “No darling that’s the way it used to be”…That’s the way you should have a fashion show, you should be there to look at the clothes, not to get up and dance…I don’t know how people can concentrate with the music. Some fashion shows are really just spectacles…

M.K.: What is the most memorable show that you have ever seen?

I.A.: Well I guess it’s because I was much younger and because it was Balenciaga….But I don’t know if you remember Sidney Gittler….

M.K.: I know the name…

I.A.: He was very important he started a line for Orbachs. And once for my birthday he said “you’re going to be in Paris, let me take you to a Balenciaga opening”….And oh my God that was incredible…I adore Balenciaga.

M.K.: What do you think of what Nicolas Guesquiere is doing for the label now?

I.A.: Well. It’s not Balenciaga….I don’t know much about it, I haven’t seen too much.

M.K.: And what do you think of the other current editorial darlings: Olivier Theyskens for Rochas and Alber Elbaz for Lanvin?

I.A.: I had a friend who said, “If you are in Paris you have to meet my friend Alber Elbaz”. We had just come from tea at the British Embassy…we had had no time for lunch and it was cold and we were starving and we went up to Lanvin where Alber was doing his collections and he was just like a Jewish mother. He was so sweet. I think he’s a big talent. And I always like when someone is a talent and a person.

M.K.: You mentioned that you like Ralph Rucci’s models.

I.A.: Yes because they all are good looking women but they’re not distinctive and they’re not supermodels. When Naomi Campbell comes out you look at Naomi first. The clothes are secondary….But Ralph’s models are very well trained and you can look at the clothes which is what you go to the show for.

M.K.: Ralph told me that I had to ask you to tell me the story about the Mongolian lamb.

I.A.: Oh he loves this story. I was the first one in America to have a Mongolian lamb…Oh God, it goes back a thousand years….we were going down the Rue St. Honore and you know how it curls sometimes….it was in the early sixties….A photographer was dragging his equipment and this coat and a hat…and I saw the most wonderful thing - this coat…my hair was like that at the time, it went from black to white….and I said to the cab driver, “Oh my God. Stop, stop! Let me out” And I jumped out and I followed this poor guy and he went into Lanvin so I followed him upstairs and he was returning this coat that was part of a collection…He had it on a photo shoot and I spoke to the vendeuse and I said “I must have that coat” and she said “Oh I am sorry but it’s in the collection and I can’t sell it to you now…come to the collection and if you like it we’ll make you one.” I said “I have no time to come to the collection, I am here working. I have to have that coat and I can’t wait”…I carried on so she promised me that after the two shows, I could have it. So I grabbed it and went back to New was a three quarter simple Mongolian fur coat and it had a great matching hat and I liked it so because when I put it on you could not tell where the fur ended and I began! It’s one of my favorite purchases that I still wear.

M.K.: That wasn’t in the exhibit.

I.A.: No. There were so many things that they wanted to use but they didn’t have the space. We could have had, literally, Harold will tell you….Stephane as least 3 more shows. I have so much stuff.

M.K: Well let’s hope they plan another one.

I.A.: Oh I am sure they won’t. One is enough!

M.K.: How did you feel about the title of the exhibit, ‘Rara Avis’ (which is Latin for ‘rare bird’)?

I.A.: I guess I didn’t really ‘get it’ at first but then I was informed by Stephane that the late Richard Martin, (the famed former Curator of the Costume Institute) used to refer to me as "that rare bird" so it grew on me. I guess that wouldn’t have gone over). But then I was told that Richard Martin (the famed former curator of the Costume Institute) used to refer to me as “that rare bird” so it grew on me.

M.K.: Out of curiousity, what would you have called it if you had your say?

(Laughing) Oh, probably something like, Out of the Closet, though I don't think that would have gone over too well.
I want to thank you so much for letting us in your fabulous apartment.

I.A.: Well it was a great pleasure to have you. It is such an honor for me as I said. To be associated…with people like Ralph Rucci and Bill Cunningham, oh my God! Like I died and went to heaven!

M.K.: Well you completely deserve the recognition; you’re a true original and you’ve inspired so many people. That’s what life is really all about.

I.A.: Well I hope I have.

M.K.: Thank you.

I.A.: Oh thank you!

(Transcription and initial editing by Muriel Triffaut)

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