If you want a picture of true life-long learning, you needn’t look any further than Iris Apfel. The 94-year-old dynamo continues to take the fashion world by storm, most recently as the subject of the documentary, Iris, which is now available to stream on Netflix, Amazon Video, GooglePlay and iTunes.
Iris’s fame, based on her expertise, has been decades in the making. Iris and her late husband, Carl Apfel, started Old World Weavers in 1950 and then ran it until their retirement in 2002. As part of her work, Iris was involved in several design restoration projects, including working with the White House during nine presidencies (from Truman through Clinton). Her own home was featured in Architectural Digest.
During their business travels, Apfel developed an affinity for non-Western, artisan clothes. The world started really noticing Iris’s quirky style – including her trademark large round glasses — when she was in her 80s and led to Iris being featured in ad campaigns for Kate Spade and jewelry designer Alexis Bittar. Iris also creates and sells her own line of jewelry, shoes and handbags on the Home Shopping Network and is featured in a book about her clothes. Her renowned eye for fashion led to a 2015 exhibition called “Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
Helping Others to Learn
Iris is still trying new things and exploring new areas at an age when many people settle permanently into their lounge chairs. In 2012 at the age of 90 she accepted an appointment as a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin. She works with a full-time professor to teach a small group of Textiles and Apparel undergraduate students who are enrolled in the university’s “UT in NYC” course. Apfel’s connections have opened doors so that these students get to meet numerous powerbrokers in the world of fashion and design, including Martha Stewart and Oscar de la Renta. The students leave the course with a better understanding of what it takes to work in New York City’s high-powered fashion and design scene.
While graciously helping a new generation find their way while also exploring her own creativity, Apfel remains selective about what she learns. “Technologically, I live in the 17th century,” she told Harper’s Bazaar. “I have a very simple cell phone, one that folds, you know?”
So as we get ready to start a new year, let’s all consider adopting Iris’s zest for life, sense of wonder and continued emphasis on trying new things. We may not end up becoming a style icon like Iris, but following our curiosity can help us transform into and embrace our own Rara Avis.
Bazilian, E. (2015). Why Older Women Are the New It-Girls of Fashion. AdWeek.com.
Freehill, L. (2012). Rare Bird of Fashion – and Academia. University of Texas Exes Alcalde.
Harper’s Bazaar. (2015). Ask Iris Apfel Anything.