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It’s pretty often that we look up to young celebrities to draw style inspiration for outfits, accessories and makeup looks. But it’s also often that we forget that a lot of these influencers and it girls curated their own personal style brand based off of the fashion repertoire of older, much more experienced fashion icons: creative individuals who have been around for literally decades. Think about Vivienne Westwood, Cher and Diana Ross. Perhaps one of the most memorable examples and certainly the eldest one (up to date) of these legacies is Iris Apfel: a 100-year-old American entrepreneur, interior designer, collector, curator and fashion maverick. 

Known amongst the high echelons of style and clothing society as the “Rare Bird” of Fashion, this sweet, kooky grandma-esque lady has a story and career as colorful as her fashion sense. Born in August of 1921, this Queens (New York) native had quite the predisposition to be inclined towards art and fashion. Her father, an American-born jewish owner of a glass shop, married a Russian boutique owner who soon became Iris’ mother. Even though Iris’ childhood and teenage years took place in the countryside, she was always eager to explore the cities of New York whenever she had the chance; particularly to sightsee and shop in vintage boutiques and antique stores. This is how, progressively, Iris began to curate her expansive collection of baubles, accessories and jewels. 

Soon after graduating from high school, Iris enrolled in the New York University, where she studied Art History. To further her studies, Iris decided to complement her Bachelor’s degree with an Art program at the University of Wisconsin. Having finished her studies, Iris began to work simultaneously as both a copywriter and an interior designer. At twenty seven years of age, she married textile worker Carl Apfel. In a matter of two years, she and her husband founded their very own textile firm, which soon rose to fame under the name Old World Weavers. As part of their work for the company, both Iris and Carl traveled frequently around the world in search for the best vintage textiles they would later supply to their clients. It was in these travels that Iris continued to expand her growing vintage clothing collection. During this period, it was common for Iris to don her recently-acquired and unique clothing articles to high society gatherings and business meetings; thus beginning to define herself as a force of fashion.

 Besides selling luxury and specialty textiles, Iris played a key part in several design restoration projectsーincluding the interior decor restoration of the White House; a career highlight that spanned nine whole presidential terms (from Truman, all the way to Clinton). Her career as a restorator and interior designer continued on and on for several decades, up until the retirement of Old World Weavers in 1992. Since then, Iris has been accoladed and academically known for her work in the field of textiles. In 2011, she was invited as a visiting professor at The University of Texas in Austin in its Division of Textiles and Apparel. Since then, she has also made a name for herself as a fashion icon, albeit an eccentric and unconventional one. Throughout the years, she has managed to create her own personal style brand, which can be identified by her short white pixie cut, her large round glasses, her colorfully printed outfits and her affinity for over-accessorizing her looks with bangles, brooches, scarves, and other exotic ornaments. Her style can best be described by one of Iris’ self-proclaimed life mottos: “More is more and less is a bore”.

Ever since, Iris has collaborated on several style campaigns, including becoming the face for Australian women’s clothing brand Blue Illusion in 2016. Her most recent collab was with none other than with the Swedish fast fashion giant H&M less than a month ago, in which Iris helped design a wide range of bold, colorful and eye-catching clothing items and accessories. Her contributions to fashion don’t stop there. In 2005, The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City paid homage to her legacy by opening an exhibition titled Rara Avis (“Rare Bird”): The Irreverent Iris Apfel; which made history as the first Met exhibition that featured clothing and accessories from a non-fashion designer. Following the incredible success of the event, the exhibition was later transferred to various locations across North America, including Florida and Massachusetts.  In 2014, she starred in her eponymous documentary, in which filmmaker Albert Maysles explores her life as a nonagenarian world-famous fashion figure and collector. Four years later, in 2018, Mattel released a Barbie doll created in her image; making history once again as the oldest person alive to have a Barbie doll created in their image. In 2019, she even signed a modeling contract with the international modeling agency IMG at the ripe age of ninety-seven. 

Iris Apfel’s life has certainly been an interesting one, filled to the brim with life lessons. If there is anything she has to teach us, it is that style is timeless, and that self-expression has nothing to do with one’s age. If anything, she has proven how fashion can quite simply change one’s life and fill it with joy, happiness and a drive for creativity. Besides inspiring us to chase our dreams, Iris has also taught us to make the most of our life, whatever our age may be. Last but not least, Iris invites us to take the plunge and be brave with our style choices, and to remember that “when you don’t dress like everybody else, you don’t have to think like everybody else”.

Hello! My name is Andrea Capllonch and I am a Marketing Undergraduate and Fashion Design student at the University of Puerto Rico. When I'm not sewing/designing clothes, I enjoy spending time outdoors doing yoga, reading good books, writing about fashion, and spending time with my friends and family. I'm also a self-love advocate, introverted Ravenclaw, and a fan of all things lavender!
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