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Fashion Icon: Iris Apfel

If one thing is certain about fashion icon Iris Apfel, it’s that she cannot be missed. Not only because of her recognizable face – always clad with giant black-framed round glasses – or her famous “more is more” approach to layering both clothing and jewelry, but because the 93-year-old is everywhere these days. Her current undertakings include an HSN jewelry line, modeling alongside Karlie Kloss as the face of Kate Spade’s spring campaign and acting as the subject of legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles’ recent piece, titled simply Iris.

Fashion icon Iris Apfel

Fashion icon Iris Apfel

Promotion poster for documentary Iris

Promotion poster for documentary Iris

Necklace, earrings and bangles from the Rara Avis by Iris Apfel jewelry collection for HSN

Necklace, earrings and bangles from the Rara Avis by Iris Apfel jewelry collection for HSN

Early Forays into Fashion

Despite her recent fame, life wasn’t always this way for fashion icon Iris Apfel. Born in Queens, New York, Apfel was an only child. Her father worked in the glass and mirrors business, while her Russian-born mother, whom the fashion icon refers to as her early style inspiration, owned a fashion boutique. Apfel began her first forays into design and fashion as a teen, studying art history at New York University, attending art school at the University of Wisconsin and working for both Women’s Wear Daily and interior designer Elinor Johnson.

Until 1992, Iris Apfel ran a textile firm with her late husband, Carl Apfel, making a name for herself in the interior design world (among her many clients, Apfel has worked with the wives of nine United States presidents).

Iris Apfel with her husband, Carl

Iris Apfel with her husband, Carl

The fashion maven in the 1960s

The fashion maven in the 1960s

Apfel stands in her exuberantly decorated Manhattan apartment

Apfel stands in her exuberantly decorated Manhattan apartment

A Rare Bird

Though Apfel has been mixing high fashion and mass-produced accessories since the 50s and 60s, it wasn’t until 2005 that her eclectic and innovative style became internationally recognized. That year, the Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City found they had an unexpected spot to fill for the fall show, whereupon curator Harold Koda asked Apfel if she would be willing to contribute pieces from her collection. The result was Rara Avis (Rare Bird): Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection – a huge and instant success. The collection showcased Apfel’s eclectic style and her love for layering bold pieces, mixing various textures and combining the unlikely in a striking, original way.

Since then, the self-professed “geriatric starlet” has been widely sought after for a number of fashion endeavors, including a MAC collection (featuring four limited edition shades of lipstick, along with eyeshadows and powders), a Jimmy Choo design inspired by her love for ethnic and tribal jewelry and her own line of handbags, entitled Extinctions. Apfel once said, “Style implies attitude, mostly, and originality. And if you don’t have those two, well, you’re done.” Based on that wise definition, it seems fashion icon Iris Apfel isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

A sampling of the pieces on display at the Met

A sampling of the pieces on display at the Met

Apfel works on her exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2009

Apfel works on her exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2009

The fashion icon with her line of handbags

The fashion icon with her line of handbags

Iris Apfel shows off her eclectic sense of style

Iris Apfel shows off her eclectic sense of style

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