Iris Apfel: Living in Style

By Michèle Jaffé-Pearce

Iris Apfel, 97, was born in Queens, New York, and for many years ran a successful textile and interiors company. After retiring, she became a celebrity at the age of 84 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged an exhibition that showcased her idiosyncratic fashion sense. She is now famous as a style icon, designer and for her wit. Her husband and business partner, Carl, died in 2015, after 68 years of marriage. Apfel works every day, and divides her time between her Park Avenue penthouse and Palm Beach, Florida.

I wake up at 6 a.m. and force myself to stay in bed until 9 a.m. as I need the energy. When you’re old, it’s easy to wither on the vine, but I’m only happy if I learn something new daily. It’s important to keep the brain active. Right now, I’m learning about porcelain.

I’m more of a taster than an eater. I have a light breakfast, usually juice, cereal and an egg. I like wholesome meals, no junk food or cakes.

The exhibition at the Met [in 2005] changed my life completely. I was 13 years into my retirement, and I became hot, cool, whatever you want to call it. I’ve always dressed differently, and nothing about my style had changed from 50 years ago, but suddenly I was a crowd-puller. Magazines wanted to interview me, offers poured in to design fashion, jewellery, accessories. I’m a total workaholic, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be a cover girl in my 90s.

My approach to dressing is a bit like jazz: I improvise, putting together couture with trash. I never dress head-to-toe designer — it’s boring. Today I’m wearing an Indian coat from a flea market, black trousers, Chinese slippers and boiled wool beads. It has never bothered me what other people think. I’m not a rebel. I just have to be my own person to feel happy.

Lunch, if I’m at home, is soup and half a sandwich. Nothing too rich. Juliette, my lovely carer, cooks and looks after me.

Both my parents had style. My father was a nonconformist who imported furniture from Europe, and my mother was ultra-chic, in a Duchess of Windsor way. She ran fashion boutiques and was a crackerjack businesswoman.

Aged 11, I’d cut classes once a week and explore flea markets. The most glamorous thing I first laid my baby blues on was a brooch, which I haggled down to 65 cents. It was my first foray into black-belt shopping. I’ve still got the dress I wore on my first date with Carl in 1947, a beautiful black Norman Norell. It fits, but nowadays I just take it out and pet it.

Twice a year, Carl and I would go to Europe for work. We’d fill 40-foot containers with fabrics and furniture. We worked with a lot of stars. Greta Garbo used to come to our salon. She’d always wear a fedora and huge loden coat. We’d give her a pad and pencil so she wouldn’t have to speak to anyone. She was so shy. We also did restoration work at the White House for nine presidents, Harry Truman through to Bill Clinton. John Kennedy was charming, and the nicest first lady was Mrs. Nixon, who was passionate about history.

I was frantic when my husband died. We’d been inseparable for 68 years, but I knew he wouldn’t want me to sit home and cry. It’s been a great help having so many projects. We never wanted children. I’d always wanted a career and to travel, which I felt I couldn’t do if I was tied down. Occasionally I think I made a mistake, but you can’t have everything.

If I go out for dinner I’ll choose Italian or French bistro food and I have the occasional glass of wine. Sometimes I feel four years old, but mostly I think of myself as the world’s oldest living teenager. I’m amazed at my life at this stage of the game. It is like living in a fairy tale.

– The Sunday Times / The Interview People