What does it mean to be a fashion plate? Is it about excellent taste, rare beauty, a certain, nebulous je ne sais quoi? To these two women—one 25 and one 93—fashion is an extension of who they are: fearless, flamboyant individualists with creative and entrepreneurial spirits. Fashion and feminism have not always played nicely together, but in Leandra Medine and Iris Apfel, young women have found icons they can relate to: neither woman squeezes herself into the narrow confines of femininity, and both appeal to those who march to the beat of their own (very stylish) drummer.
“When you don’t dress like everybody else, you don’t have to think like anybody else.” Iris Apfel—businesswoman, American style icon, interior designer to the Presidents—has built a life—and a devoted following—on being different. With her enormous round glasses and remarkable life story, she is immediately recognizable, on the streets of New York and in the pages of magazines. Whether you know her as a star of the inspiring Advanced Style blog, the subject of the lauded museum exhibit “Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection,” or a handbag designer on the Home Shopping Network, Apfel is the kind of woman who is hard not to notice—and even harder to forget.
Fashion can be many things, and to Iris it was always a creative outlet. She has collected jewelry since the age of eleven, and she’ll often wear twenty or thirty pieces at once. A great champion of individuality, Apfel curses the homogeneity she sees flooding the runways and sidewalks today. Her body is her canvas, and her idiosyncratic pairings of high and low fashion with historical and contemporary pieces shows a true collector’s eye.
Iris Apfel’s wide appeal goes beyond her striking appearance. She is the embodiment of self-reinvention. At ninety, she became a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. By that time, she already had a makeup collection with MAC and a series of eyeglasses under her (large, bejeweled) belt. Now, at 93, she is the subject of a new documentary by Albert Maysles, the filmmaker behind Grey Gardens. It’s no wonder that women of all ages are endlessly fascinated by her ability to stay at the forefront of fashion and culture: she seems to do so simply by being herself.
For the uninitiated, Man Repeller is a blog that champions challenging, fun, individualistic style—fashion not designed to attract the male gaze. Clogs, turbans, and high-waisted shorts? Check. Fanny packs and overalls? Check and check.
Leandra Medine grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home and attended Ramaz, a private Jewish day school, where she had to (gasp!) wear a uniform. She started Man Repeller as a journalism major at the New School. At its inception, she stuck close to the model of a personal style blog: the then 21-year-old Medine posted photos of herself in various outfits and informed readers of the origins and stories behind various pieces. Over time, the blog has grown into a paean to independence, confidence, and making your way in the world as a young woman—sartorially and otherwise.
Medine now employs a team of writers who cover current events, lifestyle, and pop culture in addition to fashion. It is always her voice, however, that guides the blog: witty, thoughtful, and sardonic. You could say that Medine is a new kind of fashion icon: one who does not subscribe to the age-old binary of being a woman who dresses for other women or a woman who dresses for men (think Diane Keaton vs. Raquel Welch) but is instead a woman who dresses for herself.
By rejecting conventionally sexy and super-feminine looks, Medine tapped into something that young women everywhere have found immediately relatable: the desire to feel comfortable in her own skin. Medine has openly discussed getting a wedgie at her wedding and wearing her retainer to bed. With humor and honesty, she’s made fashion fun for a generation of young women.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Fashion Tastemakers." (Viewed on May 9, 2021) <https://jwa.org/powercouples/apfel-medine>.