Keeping Busy with Iris Apfel
The self-proclaimed “geriatric starlet” talks her new book, style, and becoming an accidental icon.
At age 96, Iris Apfel is very busy—much more so than you and I. It takes weeks to finally get her on the phone. When I finally do, she doesn’t have enough time to sit still, much less talk. “I’m busy, busy, busy,” Apfel says in a throaty chortle. “Maybe at the end of the day. But I have no idea when I’ll finish the day so try me late.”
To be fair, she has a lot going on. Apfel, a Rosewood Curator for The Carlyle Hotel, just became the oldest person to have a one-of-a-kind Barbie doll styled after her. “When they called me about doing a doll I thought they were pulling my leg,” Apfel says. “I didn’t think little girls would want to play with a 96-year-old broad.”
Naturally, the doll wears Gucci and Apfel’s signature round glasses. They actually only made one of them as a gift for Apfel, but later this year she’ll style the clothing and accessories for another line of Barbies.
Her new book, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon (Harper Design) went on sale in March to rave reviews. Why did she insist on doing a book of her musings rather than a style guide? “I didn’t want to do a memoir or a ‘how-to’ book because I find them offensive. I don’t think someone else should tell other people what to do. I think that’s revolting.”
She’s also curating a capsule collection with Bergdorf Goodman fashion director Linda Fargo. The two fêted the project in March with a party at the legendary department store, attended by the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Christie Brinkley, Ralph Rucci, Gilles Mendel and Stacey Bendet.
The end of the day comes, I call Iris again, but she’s still busy, busy. “Try me again tomorrow…after two.” The line is dead before I can agree.
Apfel jokes that people like her better as the “old broad.” In her book, she recounts how her first big job in fashion and beauty came at age 90, when she worked on a limited collection of make-up for MAC in 2011. Before that, she worked alongside her husband for more than four decades, running their textile company, Old World Weavers. They founded it in 1950, and participated in major design restoration projects, including at the White House for a staggering nine presidents.
Still, when we finally talk, she tells me she never thinks about age. She sounds almost insulted that people keep bringing it up.
“Why should I think about it?” she retorts. “I don’t think that I’m 96. It’s just a number. Most women are so vain and silly they won’t tell anyone how old they are. I never understood that. I think it’s a blessing.”
She doesn’t understand why so many women would get surgery to try to look younger. “Why would you try to chop off the years? No one is going to think you’re 32 if you’re 79. You never know what you’ll come out looking like in the end. You may look like a Picasso painting.”
Apfel is known for her unique style—her eccentric jewelry, her embrace of bold colors, her round black-framed glasses—but she thinks it’s silly to bother talking about it.
“I never describe my style,” she says. “I’m an accidental icon because it was never planned and it was just crazy that it happened at all. New York has made me a geriatric starlet. And I like being a starlet because I think it buys me a little more time.”
No day is the same for Iris Apfel, and that’s exactly how she likes it. She’s about to head to Palm Beach for some doctor-ordered rest and relaxation, but that doesn’t mean she’ll slow down.
“If you’re fortunate enough to do work you enjoy and do well, that’s the real blessing. You have to keep your mind occupied and not fall into a rut.” Apfel said. “And you need to learn not to take yourself too seriously and be a pompous ass. Without a sense of humor you might as well be dead.”