The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

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Iris Apfel

b. August 29, 1921

by Arielle Silver-Willner
Last updated June 23, 2021

Iris Apfel at Miami International Film Festival to present the Emmy-nominated documentary “Iris,” 2015.

In Brief

In her late 90s, fashion icon Iris Apfel is known for her oversized glasses and eye-catching outfits. She grew up in Queens, New York, and developed a passion for design at a young age. From 1951 to1992, she and her husband owned Old World Weavers, an interior decorating business, and spent several decades engaged in restoration projects in the White House and other significant American buildings. Meanwhile, Apfel maintained a love for fashion, spending her free time expanding her unique wardrobe. At the age of 84, the Metropolitan Museum of Art offered her the opportunity to display her dazzling clothing and jewelry collection in a show entitled Rara Avis. The show's overwhelming success launched her fashion career and earned her a reputation as “The Geriatric Starlet.”

Family and Early Life

Widely recognized for her oversized, round glasses, eye-catching clothing, and abundance of chunky, layered jewelry, Iris Apfel is a spectacle of excitement, vitality, and originality. Initially an interior designer and co-owner of the Old World Weavers textile company, the native New Yorker’s rise to “fashion icon” began at the age of 84, following the success of Rara Avis, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featuring her clothing and jewelry. In her late 90s, she remains active in the design industry, proudly bearing the self-given nickname “The Geriatric Starlet.”

Iris Apfel (née Barrel) was born in Queens, New York, on August 29, 1921. The only child of Sadye and Samuel Barrel, Iris absorbed her parents’ influence—their wit, independence, love of travel, and of course, their eye for design. Her mother led by example, as she had a strong sense of personal style and challenged the gender expectations of her time as the owner of a clothing boutique. Apfel’s father, also an entrepreneur, owned a mirror and glass business.

Apfel long remembered the early encounters with textiles that cultivated her fascination with design. During childhood visits to her grandmother’s apartment, she pored over piles of fabric scraps; thrilled to discover the variety of colors, patterns, and textures, she quickly fell in love with fashion. In her 90s, she could still describe the first piece she ever purchased, at the age of eleven—a decorative broach that cost 65 cents.

Education and early career

Iris Apfel never intended to become an icon. In fact, she did not set out to pursue a career in fashion at all. After earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin, she aspired to become a writer in the fashion industry. She accepted an entry level position at Women’s Wear Daily in Manhattan, then moved on to work for illustrator Robert Goodman. There, she met Elinor Johnson, an interior decorator who hired her for her keen eye, thus initiating the true beginning of her interior design work. Given the limitations that World War II posed on industries that normally relied on shipments from Europe, there was much opportunity to create new designs locally. 

Soon, an acquaintance offered Apfel a job as a reporter at Grossinger’s, the well-known resort in New York’s “Borscht Belt.” Many guests admired her personal style and hired her to decorate their accommodations on the premises.

Strangers often took notice of Apfel’s fashion sense, but she never paid much attention to the opinions of others. In fact, key to Apfel’s success was her refusal to follow rules. During her early years in interior design, Apfel sought out textiles from around the world, determined to find new, exciting materials. Later, as she moved into fashion, she grew popular for her dynamic and unusual flair. 

On February 22, 1948, Apfel married Carl Apfel (1914-2015). Already independent in style and practical in nature, she wore a light pink bridal dress because it could be re-worn. 

Even more personal was her decision to not have children. Although Apfel declined to label herself as a feminist, she rejected the lifestyle that was expected of her as a woman in the mid-20th century. Instead, she chose to focus on her career and a life of travel and adventure with her husband. 

Apfel always refused to confine herself to gender expectations. In an era when women were expected to dress in “feminine” attire, Apfel insisted on purchasing a pair of jeans to complete an outfit she had dreamed of. Today, in a culture that pressures women to maintain an appearance of youth, she upholds an ardent attitude of acceptance toward aging. Apfel believes that women should not alter their physical appearances to look younger than they are and wears her age proudly. She also traverses the barriers between “high fashion” and “cheap” or “accessible” brands, combining designer and low-cost, mainstream apparel.

Old World Weavers

During the 1940s, as Apfel’s career in interior decorating grew, a new opportunity arose. While on a quest for an obscure design, she and her husband met a textile mill-owner who created a sample she had been searching for. The Apfels, in the early stages of building their business together, believed a partnership with the mill would be an asset to their work and they soon joined forces; the couple created designs and the mill manufactured them. They opened Old World Weavers in 1951.

Old World Weavers focused on emulating fabrics from past centuries, so the Apfels sought inspiration by traveling to countries with ancient design histories. Once the war ended, they visited Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, South America, and East Asia, exploring flea markets and small shops where Apfel searched for pieces to grow her personal collection. It was at these locales that she had garments custom-made from textiles that she discovered for decorating purposes. She also acquired many of her most prized possessions at such shops, such as the “Wandering Jew” ring, which she bought for her husband in Dublin. The ring, shaped like a lion and inscribed with a biblical phrase, was not for sale, but Apfel insisted on purchasing it. She claims that it once belonged to King Farouk of Egypt, and once her husband put it on, he was unable to remove it until just before he died.

Soon after opening Old World Weavers, the Apfels were hired by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts to assist in many restoration projects in the White House. Their engagement with the commission continued through nine presidential administrations, from 1951 until 1992.

Rara Avis

In 2005, Harold Koda, the fashion department curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, reached out to Apfel with an unprecedented request. A show he had been creating had fallen through and he was desperate to replace it. He knew about Apfel’s personal collection of costume jewelry and asked her to lend the museum an assortment of pieces to display. She consented. As Koda and his staff began assembling the show, they decided that it would be more engaging if the jewelry was presented as intended—as accessories to clothing. And so he approached Apfel again, requesting a selection from her wardrobe and inviting her to help construct the show, arranging ensembles as she would for herself. When completed, the exhibition featured over 80 outfits with hundreds of accessories. For the first time, Apfel had the opportunity to show the world her exceptional eye for fashion.

Rara Avis (“Rare Bird”) was the first one-woman show at the Met that featured a non-professional living fashion artist. Despite a lack of advertising before its opening, it was wildly successful. Its popularity initiated Apfel’s rise to international fame. In the following months, Rara Avis travelled up and down the East Coast, with Apfel gradually playing a more curatorial role. After the show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, Apfel decided to name the museum the future heir to her entire collection. 

Honors and Achievements after Rara Avis

Rara Avis launched Apfel to stardom, awarding her honors and new projects. In 2011, she collaborated with the cosmetic company MAC, creating a make-up line inspired by the Met show. Soon after, she began designing jewelry for the Home Shopping network. And at 97, she took her first steps into a modelling career with the Forbes agency. 

In 2012, Apfel became a visiting professor at the University of Texas in NYC, in the School of Human Ecology’s Division of Textiles and Apparel. She has assisted the department in developing a program dedicated to teaching students how to succeed in the fashion business.

Apfel has written three books: Dragon Threads: Court Costumes of the Celestial Kingdom: Chinese Textiles from the Iris Barrel Apfel and ATTATA Foundation Collections, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon, and Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel. The texts follow Apfel’s journey through the design world, detailing her inspirations, work, and life experiences.

Despite her fame, Apfel maintains a curtain of privacy. Although she can be found on social media, her accounts are fan-run, and she maintains strict rules regarding interacting with fans to avoid contact with germs that could endanger her health. She also keeps her closets private, infrequently allowing visitors to see inside. However, in 2015 Apfel starred in the Emmy-nominated documentary, Iris, which offers viewers a rare, intimate look into her life and even some of her closets.

Iris Today

Soon after the documentary premiered in 2015 and just days before his 101st birthday, Apfel’s husband passed away. The pair had enjoyed 68 years of marriage and creative collaboration.

Today, although she misses her partner and her age poses increasing physical limitations, Apfel maintains her distinctive youthful air. She splits her time between New York City and Palm Beach, Florida and continues to participate in design projects. She enjoys widespread celebration of her work, and the occasional shopping spree.

Selected Works by Iris Apfel

Dragon Threads: Court Costumes of the Celestial Kingdom: Chinese Textiles from the Iris Barrel Apfel and ATTATA Foundation Collections. Newark, NJ: Newark Museum Association, 1992.

With Eric Boman and Harold Koda. Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2007.

Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon. HarperCollins Publishers, 2018.

Bibliography

Greenstreet, Rosanna. “Iris Apfel: 'My Greatest Achievement? Lasting This Long.'” The Guardian, August 25, 2018. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/aug/25/iris-apfel-fashion-….

Iris. Dogwoof, 2015.

“FASHION IS: IRIS APFEL.” PBS, September 4, 2019. https://www.pbs.org/video/fashion-iris-apfel-5hydj2/.

“Iris Apfel (@Iris.apfel) • Instagram Photos and Videos.” Instagram. Accessed March 1, 2020. https://www.instagram.com/iris.apfel/?hl=en.

“Iris Apfel Is Part of the BoF 500.” The Business of Fashion, August 29, 2019. https://www.businessoffashion.com/community/people/iris-apfel.

metmuseum.org. Accessed March 1, 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2005/rara-avis-selections-from-the-iris-apfel-collection.

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How to cite this page

Silver-Willner, Arielle. "Iris Apfel." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 29, 2022) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/apfel-iris>.