“I like big and bold and lots of pizzazz,” Iris Apfel declares in a scene from Iris, her documentary premiering at the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas and Sundance Cinemas in Houston Friday, May 15. You’d certainly notice the 93-year-old New York native anywhere: big, round, black-framed glasses; always red lips; vibrantly colored ensembles; stacks upon stacks of bangles; and layers of beautiful necklaces. Iris first caught our attention 10 years ago when she showcased a selection of her statement jewelry and clothing in a Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibition, and the rare bird of fashion has yet to slow down. She has a book, produced a makeup collection with M-A-C, and most recently served as a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Human Ecology, teaching and connecting students with some of the biggest names in fashion. But the self-proclaimed geriatric starlet, who loathes the term “fashionista,” has a much longer love affair with getting dressed — a passion that has translated across a broader spectrum throughout her many decades (Old World Weavers, the textile company she co-owned with her husband, Carl, led them to design some of the most prestigious homes in the country, including the White House). In Dallas to premiere the documentary during the USA Film Festival, Iris welcomed me for tea at her favorite hotel in the city, the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, to chat filming, fashion and the significance of finding your true self.
On filming her documentary.
[The late director Albert Maysles and I] didn’t even have an outline. I had absolutely no idea what this was all going to be about because we filmed on and off (mostly off) for four years because he was traveling, I was traveling, he was in the hospital a few times, I was in the hospital a few times, I broke my hip. Very geriatric. Anyway, they followed me to a lot of events, came to my house a few times, both my homes … I still think there’s enough footage on the cutting-room floor to make two or three more films, should anybody be so foolish. It’s kind of strange seeing yourself, but everybody responded so profoundly. I never expected anything like that. And it’s very much cross-generational and also cross-gender. Young people like it and old people like it — it is very interesting. Everybody comes away with a part of it, they tell me, that really touches them.
Past trips to Dallas.
I started to come in the ’70s, when everything here was booming. I’d go back and tell my friends, “Even if you have an idiot son, send him to Dallas, and he will make a fortune!” I remember Michael Jackson was here once, at this hotel — the one time that I didn’t stay at the Mansion. I made a lot of friends [in Dallas], and everybody was always so nice to us. In those days, I really liked to do shopping. There used to be two wonderful shops, Lou Lattimore and Marie Leavell. They used to have sales like you can’t believe, and all this imported haute couture.
Her wedding to Carl.
I wanted to elope. I thought [having a wedding] was a waste of money in those days. Money was pretty tight. I could put it to better use. But parents and grandparents want it, and it was a lovely wedding. I’m glad we had it, and everybody had a great time. It was the first pink wedding. I still have my pink satin shoes; they come back in style if you hang around long enough. The shoes were from Saks Fifth Avenue, and they dyed them for me. The pink dress — my mother had a very fine dressmaker, and I wanted something I could use again. I didn’t want to spend all that money on a white satin dress and put it in a box. It had a detachable cape. In those days, I could wear strapless, which is a cardinal sin as you age.
Traveling to Europe twice a year to source fabrics and textiles for Old World Weavers.
We never flew until the liners stopped going, and we didn’t want to swim, so we had to! And then we went on the Concord, which I didn’t like at all. It scared the hell out of me. But the ships were so wonderful because they started the minute you got aboard — if you went with a foreign line, you were no longer in America the moment they took the gangplank up. Everything was French or Italian or German. Then depending on where you went, you had five to 10 days of gloriously being pampered and wonderful food. We traveled after the end of the Second World War, in the early ’50s. Each place we went was so different from the next place. Even in Italy, every city was like another place. We used to go to a lot of places in the Middle East and North Africa, which I love. I love exotic places, and I love bazaars and souks. The guy I worked with on one of my books wrote that I was born with souk sense.
Ralph Rucci is wonderful. He’s a close friend of mine. He’s not working at the moment, but I think he’s terrific. I think Naeem Khan does beautiful runway things. He’s a friend. There’s a Nigerian designer who works out of London called Duro who is very good.
On wearing lipstick.
I did a collection for M-A-C. They let me choose the colors and work with the consistency. I’m proud to say my collection sold out overnight. The colors were very unusual for that period. Nars has very good lipstick for me because it’s heavy, with very good pigment. Years ago, I used to love heavy eye makeup. But I think, as you get older, the more makeup you wear, the worse it is. So I just wear a base and a lipstick. If you’re older, your eyelids start to crepe — they kind of wrinkle — so if you use blue or green [eye makeup], you get to look like an old turtle!
The importance of individuality.
I never worried about what people said [about me]. I figured, if people didn’t like it, it’s their problem, not mine. The only people I ever worried about were my husband and my mother. I’m not going to live in somebody else’s image. I don’t believe in that. We should work at being nice rather than work on being liked. Everybody’s not going to like you, and if you are trying to be all things to all people, you’ll end up being nothing to nobody. To have some sense of style, you have to work at who you are and cultivate your own personality and express it in what you wear. That takes some effort, and it’s painful sometimes to find out who you are. It’s not an easy process, but I always believe there’s no free lunch.
Click here for our ode to Iris’s inimitable style.