An Ode to Iris Apfel

At age 84, Iris Apfel had the distinction of being the first living person whose clothing was exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s renowned Costume Institute. Ever since I stumbled upon the show Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection at the Met in 2005, I became an ardent fan of Apfel. Walking through the galleries, I was captivated by her highly original way of mixing  high-low fashion, as well as her knack for building an outfit with the depth, complexity and wit of an accomplished visual artist. 

I bought the accompanying book and kept Apfel on my radar—and so did the media. There were the various sightings and snapshots by the late Bill Cunningham, a 2015  Emmy-nominated documentary by the late Albert Maysles, a costume jewelry line sold on the Home Shopping Network and a partnership with MAC Cosmetics. But it was the most recent addition to the Apfel canon, Iris Apfel: Accidental IconMusings of a Geriatric Starlet (HarperDesign) that made me understand her place in the tapestry (pun intended!) of Jewish history. 

Allow me to digress: Jews and fabric go together like, well, bagels and lox. In Europe many Jews sold fabrics, or were tailors and rag peddlers—while in this country, Jews have been integrally connected to the garment industry, both in New York City, and in cities elsewhere, like Dallas, for decades.  This new book situates Apfel firmly within that tradition.  In its pages, Apfel describes how her passion for fabric began while the adults were playing cards and drinking in her grandmother’s Brooklyn apartment and she needed something to alleviate her boredom: 

My grandmother…was a very charitable woman who did a lot of work for the poor and the sick…She had four daughters; they were always sewing for charity.  One time, when I was still very young, she took me to a back hallway where there were two big coat closets, and said, “Sit on the floor. I’m going to give you a treat.” I obeyed.  She opened the closet doors, and out tumbled several huge white sacks. She opened one bag and what I saw made my eyes pop: a gigantic bunch of little fabric remnants in all sorts of colors and patterns—there were scraps of all kinds, of all shapes and sizes.  Then she said, “Here, sit on the floor and play with them. Do whatever you want. If you’re good, you can take six pieces with you when you go home.”

This fascinating game quickly became a beloved ritual, one that caused Apfel to become, “…obsessed with texture, color and pattern.”

Apfel goes on to describe her days at William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City, and then college, first at NYU and then the University of Wisconsin at  Madison.  By the 1940s, she had found her way into the field of interior decorating, and set up a small business.  It was while searching for a “vision of a fabric” she had “conjured” in her mind that she began what would become her life’s work. 

 She ran into an old schoolmate whose father, an Italian immigrant, was said to be a “textile genius.”  Based on Apfel’s description and rendering, this man, “Papa,” was able to produce a few sample yards of the fabric she had envisioned; it was a huge success with the client. Other collaborative designs followed and soon Apfel, her husband Carl, and the textile genius set up shop together. 

Quite by chance, she had found her way into—or more aptly created—a subset of the interior design business. For next several decades, she and Carl traveled the world in search of fabrics—old, new, handmade, unusual—to replicate in quantities sufficient to cover a sofa or make drapes.  At first they did the replicating stateside but eventually, they decided they needed to find the mills to reproduce the fabrics more authentically.

During these years, Apfel’s life was lived in markets; her raison detre was shopping  (another serious Jewish pastime).  Along with the fabrics she bought for the business, she bought clothes, jewelry and accessories for herself, thus generating the legendary collection that eventually made its way to the Met.  She also began to rub shoulders with fashion designers and was able to score pieces from their collections at prices a working woman could afford.

Today, at the age of 96, Apfel has long since moved away from her original business—but she has made her mark in the worlds of both fashion and design, and she continues to engage with her adoring fan base.  Her new book, a delightful gathering of material both biographical and aphoristic, and lavishly sprinkled with photos and whimsical illustrations, is her latest gift to them.  Even as she goes about town in a wheelchair, her devotion to fashion, and fabric—fashion’s essential building block—remains as fierce as ever.

This deep and abiding love puts me in mind of two stories, both about Jews who also appreciate the warp and weave of a “nice piece of goods.” The first was told to me by a friend who used to work in Ralph Lauren’s Home devision. She was in a meeting when Lauren leaned over to rub the lapel of her wool blazer between his thumb and index finger. “Nice material,” he said, words of a man who parlayed his own love of fabric into a global empire. The other came to me from a friend whose father’s entire professional life had been spent in textiles, mostly for men’s suits. As his father aged, his memory fled so that by the time he reached nineties, he no longer recognized his son. But when my friend went to visit his father, he did recognize quality: in an uncanny echo of Lauren’s words and gesture, he leaned over to finger his son’s sweater. “Nice piece of goods,” he said with an appreciative smile.

 Iris Apfel would no doubt agree.