At Large  March 4, 2024  Rebecca Schiffman

A Look Back at the Life of Fashion Icon Iris Apfel

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Iris Apfel, August 29, 1921 - March 1, 2024

When Iris Apfel, known for her exuberant fashion designs and iconic style—which included her signature round, oversized eyeglasses—died on Friday at her home in Palm Beach, Florida, at 102 years old, she left behind a legacy that transcends fashion and resonates deeply with those who value self-expression, authenticity and a desire to live artfully.

Apfel was born in 1921 in Astoria, Queens. From an early age, she was interested in fashion. As a child, she spent time in antique stores in Manhattan, and when the Great Depression hit, she learned how to sew and create stylish clothes on a limited budget. Apfel got her professional start as a copywriter for Women’s Wear Daily but switched to textiles when she married Carl Apfel. Together, the couple broke into the textiles business, opening up Old World Weavers, which created reproductions of medieval and modern designs for which the couple traveled the world to gain inspiration.

Apfel’s biggest contribution to American fashion was her design restoration projects for the White House. Known for her distinctive taste and bold fashion choices, Apfel collaborated with nine presidents and their spouses on various projects, from advising on interior design to curating special events. Apfel worked with Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Selection from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2005 exhibition, 'Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection.'

In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged a major exhibition devoted to Apfel. The exhibition, Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection, featured forty objects from Apfel’s collection, and focused on how Apfel would mix high and low fashion and included such objects as a Roger Jean-Pierre bracelet, a pair of 18th-century paste earrings, and a pair of modern plastic cuffs. All of the objects were accessories that Apfel wore and styled herself. All of the objects in the exhibition were promised gifts to the Met and The Costume Institute and were the first objects of that nature collected by the museum.  hats, shoes, and costume jewelry, once not objects to be collected, but now coveted objects that speak to Apfel’s style and history.

“When you don’t dress like everybody else," Apfel told the New York Times  In 2011, "you don’t have to think like everybody else.” In an industry often dominated by trends and conformity, Apfel stood out as a beacon of authenticity, reminding us that all true style knows no bounds. 

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