Saturday, 3 October 2015

Inspired by Iris

Iris dazzles thanks to her fun in experimenting with fashion and accessories
On the plane to Vancouver I managed to sleep quite a bit and in the last part of the flight I tried to stay awake. I was probably one of the last people on the planet to watch Frozen and also caught the documentary Iris.

While I now understand the hype about the theme song "Let It Go", it was Iris that resonated with me.

Iris is Iris Apfel, the 94-year-old American interior designer and now fashion icon.

The opening scene shows her dressed up with a number of colourful amber necklaces around her neck and she starts describing her outfit and sense of style. From then onwards you are mesmerized watching the nonagenarian who's an absolute riot, not just visually but verbally too.

She even shops in craft stores to find interesting pieces
She was born in 1921 and married Carl Apfel in 1948. They started doing interior decoration and clients wanted reproductions of fabrics from a century before. As she recalls in the documentary, she bumped into a school friend whose father she remembered was a weaver.

He completed the job well, and they started getting more business, that the weaver asked the couple to go into business with them and that's how they started Old World Weavers.

Apfel says that their clients didn't want to have what others had and so the couple traveled around the world to go on buying trips to find one-of-a-kind items and and fabrics to produce from other weavers. It was then that she started buying one of a kind pieces of clothing or fabrics that she fashioned into wearable items.

Their business did so well that they decorated the White House for nine presidents: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton until the Apfels retired in 1992.

Apfel with husband Carl were in the interior design business
In the documentary they are asked what it was like decorating the White House. Carl starts to talk, hinting Jackie Kennedy was a problem, but then Iris stops him, saying these are things they are not supposed to talk about.

The film watches her as she attends events in New York (even with scenes with New York Times' photographer Bill Cunningham), and various designers exclaim how Iris is so amazing. The praises come thick and fast and Iris can see through all of it, but she's gracious about all the attention.

She mixes and matches things, but her main theme is accessorizing. Her mother had told her that as long as a woman had a good black dress, it could be dressed up or down according to the accessories.

Iris will hunt everywhere and anywhere for anything she thinks is stylish from $4 colourful wooden bangles to even stuffed animals or African prints she's found in a small shop in Brooklyn.

Iris likes mixing and matching items to create new looks
She knows exactly how to put outfits together and layers pieces even though they may not have been purchased in the same place -- that makes it even more interesting for her. Some of her items are Chinese, like fabrics by the Miao minority, or Tibetan bracelets that she quips are so heavy she only wears them if the even she is attending is about 30 minutes long.

While she was well known in design circles, Iris became globally famous after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005 took a good selection of her clothes and jewellery to demonstrate the creative things people could do with their outfits. Called "Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection", it was one of the more popular exhibitions promoted through word of mouth, and everyone raved about her and her sense of style.

What Iris has that most of us don't is guts. She is very comfortable about standing out and wearing what she does. She doesn't care what others think, only concerned about what she wants to wear, which is her secret to pulling off these eclectic, dramatic, bold looks.

And she will buy everything and anything. Each of their homes is stuffed with clothes, accessories, furniture as well as things from stuffed animals to crazy knick-knacks. Carl seems amused whenever Iris goes shopping -- he jokes that he'd rather his money go to Iris to spend than to the taxman.

However the film also documents Carl getting older, celebrating his 100th birthday with a big bash. And one can see Iris contemplative, worrying about what to do as the two of them get older. Carl passed away in August, just three days shy of his 101st birthday.

There are scenes of Iris going through their storage facility to get rid of some furniture, paintings and accessories. She says her accountant chastised her for not throwing out the items earlier, but she firmly says she wasn't ready at the time. That gives comfort to viewers to know, that not everyone is mentally prepared to let go, even Iris.

The documentary was made by Albert Maysles, in his 80s, and sadly he too died earlier this year.

Interestingly he's sometimes part of the film, inserted here and there, capturing Iris talking directly to him, or when photographer Bruce Weber insists on talking about Maysles, and he can't help but include himself in the documentary.

Iris says young fashion designers today have no sense of history, have no understanding of the evolution of fashion. She says art, politics, history, design, fashion, the economy are all interconnected and one needs to understand all of this to realize what is going on.

She is definitely one of a kind -- and we are sad to hear her dear Carl is gone, but we hope she will keep busy and thrill us more with her striking outfits that scream attention, mixed with witty humour. She shows that one can still be very busy late in life, as she calls herself a "geriatric starlet", who's blooming in her 90s and taking it all in.

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