All over my Facebook feed are advertisements for the film Iris directed by Albert Maysles (his last film before he died). I mentioned her in a previous article on the Retirement Renaissance and so I decided to pay the £4.49 to rent the film from iTunes. The film follows Iris Apfel, a charismatic style and interior design icon who is in her 90s, going about her extraordinary day to day life in New York.
The film shows her rich and fulfilling life. She travelled extensively to find inspiration for her textile designs as well as collecting furniture, clothes and jewellery from around the world. She shows us her heavy jewellery from Tibet; her Chinese shaman textiles which she uses as a scarf and her church vestments which she altered to make trousers. Her collection is mesmerising, every room in her various apartments and houses is filled from floor to ceiling with clothes, furniture, taxidermy, toys and Christmas lights that are switched on 6-8 months of the year. Her closest are double the height with clothes on two levels inside. As you’d imagine there is a story behind every object. She remembers where she got every single item from, with the tiniest teddy bear purchased at the Ritz in Paris up to her couture dresses from Dior and Versace to name a few. My favourite example was a leather shirt that was hand painted by Gianni Versace.
Her fandom is wide ranging, and so it should be. She brings together all walks of life and engages with them all. Amongst her fans we see designers such as Dries Van Noten and Duro Olowu confessing their admiration. Olowu even takes Iris to a shop specialising in African fashion- I am not sure whether this is for the film or whether they actually would do this together on a regular basis. She states that she preferred the style of the people living down town when she saw them going to church; rather than the women who were seen to be stylish in just a regular bland black dress that Iris describes as a “uniform”. She even worked for the Whitehouse at one point as a interior designer and decorator. There have been numerous exhibitions of her clothes and accessories such as at the Peabody Essex Museum and MoMA and the fact she has had them before she has died and solo (as a woman in a patriarchal world) is a marker of her talent and success.
Iris attributes her style to her mother when she was growing up in Depression era. She states that her mother gave her solid advice, buy a little black dress as you will always have something to wear you can either dress it up or dress it down. This thriftiness also comes through when you see her shopping. She calls herself a “cheapskate” and feels more at home in a cheap jewellery shop where she can buy bracelets for $4 than in the lavish jewellery shops on the Upper East Side. Another example is her wedding dress. Iris shows us a photograph from her wedding where she wore a beautiful pink lace dress and pink satin shoes; that according to her are coming back into fashion. She chose pink for she wanted to wear them after her wedding rather than wearing them once.
As an opinionated lady and in her silver ages we gain some of her insights into the creative industry. She laments at how many young people are simply “media freaks” that don’t sew or drape and have “no sense of history or curiosity about anything”. They don’t understand their traditional crafts such as weaving, embroidery and beading nor the interplay between economics, politics and history that goes into fashion and interior design. She says that everyone looks the same and homogenised which she obviously dislikes. However what I found most striking was her curiosity and intrigue. Her curiosity know no bounds and she states that she couldn’t be friends with someone if they weren't curious. She has travelled the world to find the new and the interesting and this is why I believe she is amicable with everyone is that she is curious to hear what they have to say and bring.
As the viewer we also gain the privilege of seeing her private life through old photograph albums and films. We see their holiday photos, their wedding photos (as I said before) and listen to their anecdotes. We begin to see the real Iris behind the fashion shoots, behind the image on the shopping bags and behind the articles. In the film we get glimpses of her fragility, infectious humour and tenderness with the love between her and her husband, who describes his marriage as “one beautiful trip”. We see that she is constantly working, the phone rings so we are told 50 times a day and her family and friends are concerned by how much she works. But as pointed out by her nephew that is her personality, she has to keep going like a perpetual motion machine designed by Da Vinci.
The film is amazing and a must watch, we see the woman behind the Dazed and Confused cover. But I find the film, as well as being a celebration of a glorious life, also raises some issues for me. Looking at her success she has become an icon and perhaps a a commodity and a spectacle. I worry this may get in the way of her work, rather than her age. However the hope and inspiration she gives people is, as cliché as this sounds, priceless. To finish here are a few quotes that I loved the most from the film.
“not intellectual, all gut”
“you’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty but you have something better. You have style”
“if you hang around long enough everything comes back”
“very much alive, she’s walking around to save on funeral expenses”
“colour can raise the dead”
Iris is now available to watch in cinemas around the UK
Written by George Toon, contributor for Erebus.