Fashion legend Iris Apfel dead at 102: ‘An American original in the truest sense’

Fashion legend Iris Apfel dead at 102: ‘An American original in the truest sense’

Iris Apfel — the trailblazing textile virtuoso and NYC fixture known for her eclectic style, especially her oversized black-rimmed glasses — died on Friday at home in Palm Beach, Fla. She was 102.

A unique tastemaker, Apfel found herself the focus of museum exhibits, including one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005. She was also featured in a 2007 coffee table book, a groundbreaking 2012 MAC Cosmetics campaign, and a 2014 documentary.

She worked with nine presidential wives on design restoration at the White House, using fabric from Old World Weavers, the textile company she co-founded with her late husband, Carl Apfel.

Apfel was a New Yorker through and through. She was born Iris Barrel on Aug. 29, 1921, an only child in Queens to two Jewish farmers.

Her father, Samuel, ran a mirror and glass business, while her mother, Sadye, owned a clothing boutique, ensconcing her in creativity at a young age.

At just 12 years old, she was taking the subway into Manhattan on Thursday afternoons to window shop, an experience she described to The Guardian in a 2015 interview.

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Iris Arpel rocks bold prints and her style staple: statement necklaces. Magnolia Pictures

“At that time you could ride the whole subway system for a nickel, so each week I would take a different section of New York — Chinatown, Yorkville, Harlem, Greenwich Village,” she told the outlet.

She continued, “And I really fell in love with the Village. The Village was where I started to poke around antique shops and become enchanted with all this old junk.”

Apfel studied art history at New York University before transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

After graduating in 1943, she moved back to NYC and began working for Women’s Wear Daily as a copywriter, according to Harper’s Bazaar. She also served as an assistant to interior designer Elinor Johnson.

She and Carl launched Old World Weavers in 1950, two years after they wed.

The two loved to travel the world together, sourcing items for fun and design projects. The company was inspired by the unique designs they found on their trips to places like North Africa and Europe, according to The Inside.

NYC style icon Iris Apfel. Getty Images

Some of their clients included Estee Lauder, Faye Dunaway, and Greta Garbo, the outlet reported.

Although Apfel was well-known in NYC circles, she became a household name later in life — at the age of 84, to be exact, when she was tapped for a museum exhibit.

In 2005, Apfel received a phone call from Harold Koda, a fashion scholar and the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

An exhibit that was supposed to go up that summer had been canceled, and since Koda had heard so much about Apfel’s extensive costume jewelry collection, he decided to ask her to curate an exhibit, The Guardian reported.

The show that ensued was called “Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection,” which ran at The Met from September 2005 to January 2006. It featured 40 of her own accessories, including a Gripoix brooch and a pair of 18th-century paste earrings.

She was a “geriatric starlet,” as she called herself, reaching fame following a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit about her life and work.

“An American original in the truest sense, Iris Apfel is one of the most vivacious personalities in the worlds of fashion, textiles, and interior design, and over the past 40 years, she has cultivated a personal style that is both witty and exuberantly idiosyncratic,” the museum noted, adding that her “originality” can be seen in a mix of high and low fashions.

“With remarkable panache and discernment, she combines colors, textures, and patterns without regard to period, provenance, and, ultimately, aesthetic conventions,” the museum continued. “Paradoxically, her richly layered combinations — even at their most extreme and baroque – project a boldly graphic modernity.”

The designer often referred to herself as a “geriatric starlet,” as she was awarded several opportunities after her Met exhibit.

In 2007, she was the subject of a coffee table booked cleverly titled, “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel” — with “rare bird” being the Latin translation of “Rara avis.”

Following Rara Avis, she developed a line of lipsticks for MAC Cosmetics. She launched her own fashion line with the Home Shopping Network in 2011 that was cheekily titled “Rara Avis by Iris Apfel,” after her exhibit.

In 2014, a documentary about her life was released by award-winning filmmaker Albert Maysles. The doc, “Iris,” was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2017.

It was one of Maysles’ last works before he died in 2015 at 88 years old.

Apfel owned a textile company with her husband, which furnished the White House through various presidencies. Getty Images for American Appare

“They just took lots and lots of footage — I think there’s enough film left on the cutting-room floor to do three more films — so it came as kind of a shock,” Apfel told The Cut in 2015 about the documentary.

“I’m very pleased that Albert loved it, as it was his last work. And I’m very gratified at the response we’re getting because I had no idea what to expect; I thought people might just laugh, you know, in not the right way.”

The designer often referred to herself as an “accidental icon,” a title she also gave her 2018 memoir.

The same year, Mattel made a Barbie doll in her honor for International Women’s Day. At the time, she was 96, making her the oldest person to be turned into a Barbie doll.

Her other artistic collaborations involved the machine-washable rug retailer Ruggable, the makeup company Ciaté London, and the clothing brand H&M.

In 2021, she celebrated her 100th birthday on the 100th floor of Central Park Tower, according to “TODAY” — with the party drawing Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, Katie Holmes, Barbie Ferreira, Alexis Bittar and other A-listers.

The style icon was married to Carl Apfel from 1948 until his death in 2015 at the age of 100 — only a few days before his 101st birthday. They had no children.