Long before the rise of street style blogs, Instagram and other social media, Iris Apfel was the mother of fashion individuality.
For almost three-quarters of a century, her idiosyncratic style has inspired designers and store window displays, been the subject of museum shows and a coffee-table book. She's been a cover model, an ad pitchwoman, a designer of accessories for HSN and a regular on the New York fashion scene — in runway show seats, at the CFDA Awards and always in the heat of the flashbulbs.
Now the 93-year-old inveterate New Yorker has gone Hollywood. She's the star of the new documentary film "Iris," the final work of the late filmmaker Albert Maysles (reviewed here), cementing her living legacy.
But one thing Iris Apfel hadn't done, at least not since the early 1990s when she still traveled for her home furnishings business Old World Weavers, was go shopping in Los Angeles.
So last week, when she was in town to promote the film, which opened in limited release on Friday, we did just that.
Before we met, I sent ahead a list of stores, each of them an only-in-L.A. experience. She dismissed most of them out of hand. She'd done her research, with the help of her assistant, Juliet Brown, who showed her the websites of the places I'd suggested, "because technologically I'm in the 17th century," deadpans Apfel. "I want either interesting couture or offbeat things. Run-of-the-mill stuff I don't need or want."
I knew that, of course, but it wasn't until I really took her all in that I fully got it. The saucer-sized eyeglasses and shock of white hair. The Indian patchwork coat with a "size small" tag on the outside. ("You can turn it inside out," Apfel explains of the flea market find.) The tangle of Monies necklaces — ebony disks, chain links and beads — so heavy they looked like they'd topple her. And the shaggy gray puff-ball, fur, cross-body bag she cradled on her lap like a pet.
She is a tsunami of style. And she knows her stuff. She's an encyclopedia of fashion history who can recall designer names and stores like that.
Apfel says she got her fashion sense from her mother, Syd Barrel, who owned a store in Queens, where Iris grew up. "In the 1930s, she was so far ahead," Apfel recalls. "She was selling costume jewelry. Her highest price was $35, which was a fortune at the time. But she worshiped at the altar of accessories and taught me that if you had a basic black dress, an architectural dress, you can change it a thousand different ways with accessories. Changing shoes and belt and bling, you totally transform."
A collector of clothing and accessories for more than 70 years, Apfel is as happy shopping at Loehmann's as Louboutin, so long as she's looking at things that are "totally mad," as she describes her style. In the film, you get a sense of the volume of her collection, which takes up racks upon racks and rooms upon rooms of the Park Avenue and Palm Beach apartments she shares with her husband of 67 years, Carl Apfel. Some pieces have been donated to museums, to make way for the new. Because as any true lover of fashion knows, the next great find is just around the corner.
"I'm a collector and a buyer … but still, after a while, it consumes and devours me," says Apfel, who packed four suitcases for her weeklong trip.
A hip injury has Apfel in a wheelchair most of the time. But the moment we walk into vintage Valhalla the Way We Wore on South La Brea Avenue, it's as if the retail god himself has laid his hands on her.
She's on her feet and on the move, zeroing in on a white resin Buddha necklace. "It's 1980s, and it is signed," says store manager Sarah Bergman. "I like it, I don't care who made it," Apfel says. "How much do you get for something like this?" $695.
Apfel's eyes dart to a glass case and two boho-arty 1970s necklaces by Alex and Lee. "I used to buy them at their shop in San Francisco," Apfel says. "What do those go for?" $2,500. "No," Apfel says. "I can't have it all."
She also shuts down two jagged metal Hervé Van Der Straeten cuff bracelets that resemble throwing stars. "My blood is worth more."
There's a yellow-beaded Sioux collar that stretches from neck to waist ($895), a chunky turquoise Zuni Squash blossom necklace ($3,000) and a Zandra Rhodes squiggle bangle ($225). "Maybe," "no," "take this away," Apfel says. "I love this but I have several." "What do you get for these?" "How much is that baby?" "A pair or each?" "I'm going to have to rob a bank."
Out comes a rolling rack stuffed with the store's most "mad" jackets and shawls. Off goes Apfel's own coat and jewelry. "Put them somewhere safe so you don't sell them back to me," she jokes.
She's is in her element, playing and preening. Feathers are flying — lipstick-red Dior feathers on a $1,500 balloon-sleeve jacket from the 1980s, to be exact. "I'm crazy for this one," she says. Then, hand to heart, "It has to feel good here."
A full-length opera cape completely covered in black rosettes came from an estate sale in Chicago and was owned by a former model ($995). Apfel tries it once and again, an artist gazing at her greatest masterpiece in a hand mirror. "Are you sure you don't want a tiara?" Bergman asks. "That would be overdone," Apfel replies, as the rest of the store stifles laughter.
We've been at the Way We Wore going on two hours. Clearly, we won't make it to any of the other stops I had lined up if Apfel is to stick to her brisk schedule, which includes an afternoon tea at the Bel-Air home of Violet Grey founder Cassandra Grey and an evening screening of "Iris," followed by a Q&A, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
"Sometimes it's dark when we leave," her assistant says, trying futilely to move her along.
"From the 1950s to the 1980s, all the great designers were working," Apfel says. "Then it went to pieces."
She settles on a 1980s iridescent blue Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche cocoon parka, trimmed in black leather fringe ($895), a bronze-beaded 1980s Carolina Herrera evening jacket trimmed in pheasant feathers ($695), a 1980s Escada circus-themed sequin blazer with a moon and stars on the back ($250), a floor-length, hand-painted 1970s suede Char vest ($1500), a black silk 1920s Mandarin jacket with floral beadwork ($950), a non-designer floral shawl for $595 and that spectacular, showstopping cape from the estate sale. And she can't resist the Buddha necklace, a beaded belt with a bow as wide as her waist, a handful of wood bangles and a few other odds and ends.
"How do I decide? Well, some things touch me more than others," Apfel explains. "Some things are similar to what I have, or I don't need. Well, you don't need any of it really. But you do need it, yes."