At 90 years old, Iris Apfel has not gone gentle, as Dylan Thomas (nearly) put it, into that good night of pastels, luxe but innocuous suits, and orthopedically correct shoes. At Sotheby’s Wednesday night for the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club “Best Of” design lecture series, she wore a slate grey knee-length leather coat drenched in embroidery, ombre slacks, a taupe Mongolian lambskin wrap, and a froth of turquoise necklaces at her throat. But we only saw, at least initially, those glossy black fishbowl glasses and the crimson lips that have become her signature.
The grand dame of eclectic style was immortalized in “Rara Avis (Rare Bird),” a 2005 show of selections from her wardrobe at the Met. Recently she’s collaborated with HSN on a line of accessories, and with MAC Cosmetics on her namesake beauty collection (we may even own one of the more brilliant fuchsia lipsticks…). But on Wednesday night the inimitable Iris was scheduled to speak to a small group on Sotheby’s eight floor in conversation with Veranda editor-in-chief Dara Caponigro. Despite some trepidation about our own humble ensemble, we trekked out to York Avenue in time to sit down with Ms. Caponigro as well-heeled guests began to trickle in.
A formidable voice of style, Ms. Caponigro offered us her explanation of Apfel’s strikingly intergenerational appeal: “I think Iris is a breath of fresh air in terms of being her own person, and not really caring what people think about her. That comes through on all levels. She just is who she is. I think that’s unusual in this day and age, and I think people are responding to it,” she told us. “She’s so funny; last night she said, ‘What should I wear?’ She said she might be wearing jeans. We’ll see…”
But lo, Iris Apfel entered moments later sans denim. The Observer doesn’t care to entertain cheap hyperbole here, but we would be remiss not to mention the dramatic shift in attention upon her arrival. Perhaps Ms. Apfel herself—of all people—is least concerned with her clothes. Later in the evening she told us wryly, “People should put more things in their heads than on their heads.”
It was no surprise then, to inquire about her recent donation of 600 pieces (with another 300 still to come) to the Salem, Massachusetts, Peabody Essex Museum and find her holding up well. Was it difficult to say au revoir to Dior, McQueen and rarer flea market treasures, like sending away a child? “It was not quite as bad as saying goodbye to a child. Maybe long-lost relatives.”
Ms. Apfel was also kind enough to shed light on the hotly anticipated, still-nebulous Albert Maysles documentary of which she is the subject. “Well I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “Originally, I refused, and he asked me again, and people said to me ‘You must be crazy. He’s such an important person and if he wants to do it, you should think about it.’ So I went up to Harlem and visited their studio, and we all kind of fell in love and decided to do it. I haven’t got a clue as to what it’s going to be, because he doesn’t work with a script. He just takes pictures of whatever it is we’re doing.” We hear that Mr. Maysles (another iconic pair of spectacles) and his crew were shooting at Veranda’s 25th anniversary bash in March at the Four Seasons.
Before hurrying off to find a seat, we asked Ms. Apfel that most pressing of questions: What shade of lipstick are you wearing? Although the name escaped her, it was a striking coral fuchsia from her MAC collection (Our guess? “Scarlet Ibis.”)
The audience was an intimate and intergenerational fifty or so, equal parts ladies who lunch and ladies whose mothers lunch. Mr. Carl Apfel, Iris’ husband of sixty-four years, sat in the front row in blue-black metallic brocade flares and a black blazer. Infinitely quotable, Ms. Apfel for an hour imparted anecdotes and nuggets of wisdom that had the woman next to us feeling positively vocal. “She’s such a pistol!” she apprised us periodically. Ms. Apfel spoke on being one of the first women in America to wear jeans, in 1940 (she was hell-bent on finding a pair to wear with hoop earrings and a turban), on what she wore when she met Duke Ellington (grey flannel trousers with a matching cashmere sweater, paired with a former beau’s Cornell blazer), and on aging (“For God’s sake, the alternative is very unpleasant!”) “Wow, she is really something else,” the woman next to us murmured. Of course, we had to agree.
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