With true originality becoming an increasingly precious commodity, the 95 year-old iconic Iris Apfel soldiers on, spewing her wit and wisdom about the subject of style, and inspiring multi-generational fashion enthusiasts to think… and dress… for themselves. The New York native—a former textiles manufacturer and interior designer—was catapulted into the American pop culture consciousness back in 2005, when the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged an exhibition that paid homage to her personal style and striking wardrobe. Two years ago, Apfel was celebrated once again in “Iris”, a much-lauded documentary about her irreverent, free spirit. Having worked as a model and muse for certain fashion brands these past few years, from J. Crew to Commes des Garcons, Apfel is currently a brand ambassador for Swarovski, and helping to promote its new holiday collection at Holt Renfrew’s Toronto Bloor St. store next week. I spoke with Iris Apfel recently, just after she’d returned from a jaunt to Puerto Rico, about her style philosophy, why technology has been terrible for fashion, and how taking the art of dressing too seriously is a big mistake.
JEANNE: Do you still enjoy traveling?
IRIS: I enjoy it once I’m there. The process is really revolting. I was recounting to someone I was with what it was like when I first began to travel and you got all dressed up and everybody looked like ladies and gentlemen and now everybody looks and behaves like barnyard animals.
J: Do you still dress up when you travel?
I: Oh God no, people would throw stones. I wear something comfortable, but I look clean and neat. I mean some of the sights are like walking rag heaps!
J: Well we’ve moved into this era of ultra comfort, much to some people’s chagrin… and obviously it doesn’t always make for great fashion.
I: It has nothing to do with fashion. It’s just a matter of being appropriate and not being offensive. If you make an effort, you can be comfortable and look clean and neat.
J: You grew up in an age that was filled with fashion rules. But you always marched to the beat of your own drum. What was it that inspired you to break rules and just be true to yourself?
I: I don’t set out to break rules. I just don’t pay any attention to them. I’m not a rebel. I just don’t want to be put in a box and told what to do. I have my own life to live and I want to live it the way I want to live it. And as long as I don’t offend anybody or do anything criminal… I mean there are people who set out to be different. I never set out to be different. I’m just me.
J: Was there a point that you realized that you were just going to be much more of an original than most people?
I: I never thought about it. I never thought about being original. I’m not a planner. I’ve never had a business plan. When I was young, I never said, ‘I have to be this, I’m going to do that.’ Everything just kind of happened to me.
J: I remember talking to you a few years back at a Ralph Rucci show and you were lamenting the fact that there was so much sameness in fashion, that so few designers were really giving the world things that were new and exciting. How do you feel about the fashion landscape at this particular point? Do you still lament the fact that there isn’t as much originality around today as there was?
I: Oh there’s no question there’s a lack of creativity and originality, whether it’s because people are frightened because of the economy… But it seems to me we’re at the point where people don’t want to buy. There’s nothing really to tempt you when you go to shops anymore. I’m not the best one to speak to that because I don’t really need too much. I’ve got so much stuff, I’m giving it away. But if I saw something that really tickled me, I would be delighted to buy it. But I’m speaking through the mouth of friends of mine who have plenty of money and plenty of time and they love to go shopping. But always they come home and they’re really depressed. They say, ‘How many blazers do you need? How many pairs of jeans do you need? Everything’s the same old same old same old!’ It’s really sad and some people say the manufacturers are playing it safe, but I don’t think they’re playing it safe. I think it would be safer if they took a few chances.
J: But as we grow older and accumulate so many different things, we turn the mixing of these pieces into a kind of sartorial art. Maybe we don’t really need that much anymore. How many pieces of clothing does one really need?
I: Well fashion is not about needing things. Really you don’t need very much at all to get by. It’s about wanting to have it, and it’s the fun of it, and it’s like a game. I don’t think it has to do with need at all. How many pairs of shoes does a person need?
Maybe a few things to keep you warm or to keep you cool and something fresh when you send it out to be washed or dry-cleaned. But it’s not about need. If it was about need, my God! I think 90% of the stores in the world would close.
J: When it comes to jewelry, some say less is more, some say you can never have enough. What is your philosophy when it comes to wearing jewelry?
I: Well if you know how to pile it on, I think it’s wonderful. But you have to learn how to do it and work at it. Some people pile it on and look like a frenzied Christmas tree. I happen to like a lot of stuff. It’s good for me. It suits me. But I am not a dictatorial person I don’t come out and say you must wear this, or these are the 10 things you have to have. These kind of statements make me crazy because everybody is different or should be different. I think all this sameness is terrible. I don’t know why it’s so, especially in this day and age with younger people, when there’s so much fast fashion which is so inexpensive and they have the opportunity to experiment and try different things. Some people look marvelous when they’re minimal. And some people look wonderful when they’re maximized. It’s a matter of finding your own comfort and style level and working accordingly and not trying to look like somebody else. I mean I think to slavishly try to copy, as these kids do all these silly celebrities…well, they look funny.
J:. How good or bad do you think this age of technology and Instagram has been for fashion or for society in general?
I: I think it’s been terrible. I know it’s a very good selling tool and commercially it’s obviously viable. But I don’t subscribe to that kind of thing. I think everybody should spend the time they waste looking at all the stuff trying to learn who they are and experiment with themselves and try to be individuals, instead of being a bunch of lemmings.
J: You’ve inspired multi-generations of people to think for themselves. Does it surprise you that this attention has come to you at this stage in your life?
I: Oh I think it’s funny. I don’t pay much attention to it because I’m no different than I was seventy years ago. It just rolls off my back. I think it’s wonderful if I can help people and I know I have, because people have written to me, and called me, and spoken to me, and jumped all over me. I’m happy if I can release people from staying in the box. It’s a big world out there and there are so many wonderful things to explore. God gave you the gift of curiosity. You should use it.
J: For a long time people said that fashion ate its young and that there was so much ageism that was running rampant in the industry and that the industry was youth obsessed…
I: It still is. But I meet mothers of teenage girls who come over to me and they can’t thank me enough if their kids have some interest in me, because they say that they have no decent role models anymore. I mean they have all these trashy people that become celebrities and do all kind of things that kids shouldn’t be doing. And these kids try so hard to look like them and emulate them and it doesn’t make any sense. So I think when people see that there are real people out there who have their own lives and don’t disturb the peace, they’re enamored with it. Lots of people thank me for giving them permission to dress their own way or live their own lives. I don’t know why they need permission, but if I’m giving it to them, I’m happy.
J: For so long, we were taught that you have to keep your age in mind and dress ‘appropriately’. These things were just killing our spirits in many ways…
I: You said the magic word: Appropriate. This is the problem. That’s a dirty word today. Nobody knows what’s ‘appropriate’ or wants to use ‘appropriate’ anymore. The trouble is people don’t think for themselves or realize that you can be older and you don’t have to look like you’re wearing a widow’s weed. But you still have to be appropriate. You see some elderly ladies with mini skirts, or long hair, or showing off too much skin. These are things that older women should not do. But aside from that, they don’t have to look like they’re old fuddy-duddies if you know yourself and you know what you can do. I don’t know why people always want to look like somebody else. They don’t want to look like themselves.
J: Because they don’t know themselves….
I: Well that’s the point. And hey don’t want to spend their time knowing themselves. It’s much easier just to look at a magazine and say, ‘ Well this is the look now and so I’ll buy it and I’ll wear it!’ And they just don’t look in the mirror. I think the worst fashion faux pas is looking in a mirror and seeing somebody else, which is what most people do.
J: Do you have much hope for the future? Are you optimistic about what may transpire in the coming decade or so or have you written some things off in a way?
I: I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t tell. But from what I see now, I’m not too hopeful.
J: But there’s a lot that’s going on with technology that seems so positive now, and there are all kinds of technologically advanced fabrications. People are experimenting with 3D printing and designing in different ways….
I: That would just make for more sameness. I think that would make it more mass…
J: Maybe in terms of production, but technologically speaking, I think there are certain ways of pushing boundaries and creating interesting new fabrications that or dynamic new shapes that have never been thought of before….
I: But I think there are plenty of shapes available. I don’t think it’s the shapes. I think so much has happened in the course of fashion that every shape that could be possibly thought of was utilized. I don’t think shape has anything to do with it. I think it’s more about putting things together and how you present yourself. It’s like you are your own canvas. You can paint your own picture. I think technology is wonderful on many many fronts but I don’t think fashion is one of them. I don’t like a machine to design for me. So many beautiful things have been created by people’s hands, and eyes, and souls. I don’t think you need a machine to do it.
J: You’ve spent such a long time digesting what’s out there… You’re very persuasive!
I: But I get very angry when people think fashion is my life and that I live to get dressed. That’s the furthest thing from my mind. I do a lot of other things that are much more interesting than getting dressed. But I think when you do get dressed you should make an effort. I just came back from Puerto Rico and I was so impressed by the women who could tell me they really make an effort. They want to look lovely. They really work at it, and it shows.
J: What about maintaining a sense of whimsy? How important is it to find humor in fashion and dressing up?
I: I think it’s important to find humor in everything because I think if you don’t have a sense of humor about living, you might as well be dead. I think taking yourself or your clothes too seriously is just terrible and that’s a big mistake. There are a lot of well-dressed women who are very uptight about the way they dress and they take every button as a serious matter. That’s ridiculous. No matter how well dressed you are, if you’re not relaxed, then you don’t look relaxed and you’re not going to look well. I always say if being well dressed or being fashionable makes you uptight and uncomfortable, it’s much better to be happy than well dressed
J: I maintain that true beauty doesn’t ever have very much to do at all with what we’re wearing. It’s what we’re feeling and how we move through the world.
I: I think style is all attitude, attitude, attitude!
J: It’s all about energy and your energy is just astounding. How do you explain the fact that you just bounce out of bed each day with this renewed gusto for life? What is it that keeps you so engaged?
I: Just being alive I guess. I try very hard to live in the now. I don’t dwell on the past and I don’t hanker for the future. I’m very interested in what’s going on now or the immediate future.