Iris Apfel Talks Fashion & Career Highlights — and How Everything Happened by Accident

Iris Apfel
Iris Apfel
Meredith Jenks

“What is this? Are we in a jungle?”

Perched in an armchair in the Footwear News photo studio, the “rare bird of fashion,” Iris Apfel, strikes pose after pose for her cover shoot, completely unfazed by the half-dozen people wielding giant palm fronds next to her head.

The room is packed with photo and video crew members, editors and assistants and also one or two curious colleagues who have slipped in for a peek at a legend.

But with her characteristic wit and poise, Apfel, who turned 96 two days earlier, simply shrugs off the strange happenings. She is dressed head to toe in her HSN line, Rara Avis, in ensembles that she styled herself. “Do I look OK?” she asks the room, to which the answer of course is yes — always yes.

A Flourishing Partnership

As arguably the world’s most famous geriatric cover girl, Apfel is widely revered in the fashion world for her bold, distinctive aesthetic that defies traditional rules.

“I like rules for certain traffic regulations and not slicing your neighbor’s head off, but rules for fashion are pretty stupid,” she quips.

Apfel, who splits her time between New York and Florida, also boasts a tireless work ethic. She is consistently juggling a packed lineup of projects with top fashion brands and retailers. One of her longest collaborative partnerships is with HSN Inc.

Since 2011, the fashionphile has worked with the company to craft her Rara Avis accessories collection.

“I feel strongly about helping people who don’t want to look like everybody else,” Apfel told FN, stressing one of her mostly strongly held beliefs about style: “I can’t stand sameness. I like people to be individuals, and so many women need help. It sounds stupid, but they need somebody to give them permission to do something that’s different, or they need to be inspired.”

Bill Brand, president of HSN, agreed that customers of all ages turn to Apfel for her expertise. “She empowers our customers and gives them permission to be bold and take chances,” he said. “To think that a woman who has lived this amazing life is impacting women in their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond, through fashion, is remarkable.”

He noted that former HSN CEO Mindy Grossman helped recruit Apfel to the family. “Mindy and her fashion influence and her ability to connect with influencers played a part in it,” said Brand. “I’ve worked for a lot of people who are literal and would have said, ‘Oh, Iris wears necklaces, just do necklaces.’ What I learned from Mindy was to have that conversation about what makes someone excited, what makes them interesting — you don’t know where the conversation will lead.”

Iris Apfel wears a Rara Avis ensemble. Meredith Jenks

For Apfel, the Rara Avis line (meaning “rare bird”) has been an opportunity to expand her creative capabilities.

As a longtime fashion collector and a former textile designer, she has transitioned seamlessly into the role of brand architect, dabbling in a range of unexpected product categories and themes.

Apfel is working on a line for HSNi’s Grandin Road home goods label, and the fashion guru hinted that a toy doll in her likeness could be in the works.

She’s also crafted colorful collections for HSN’s partnership with movie studios. In 2016 she developed a line for the release of Tim Burton’s film “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” And this fall, Apfel will release exclusive HSN product based on the star-studded Agatha Christie film “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Despite all these creative feats, she still doesn’t consider herself a traditional fashion designer.

“I’m a much better editor than I am a designer,” Apfel admitted to FN. “I have the ideas, and I know what I want, and I can make a sketch or convey it to somebody who has the technical skills, which I don’t profess to have. I think I do a decent job, and it’s worked so far.”

Iris Apfel Iris Apfel says her signature look “just happened.” Meredith Jenks

Planting the Seeds

Apfel has often credited her awareness of fashion to her Russia-born mother, Sadye Barrel, whom she describes as being “very polished and very elegant.” But Apfel confessed to FN that only recently did she understand the extent of that influence.

“She was my role model. But I never realized it because her style was so completely different from mine,” said Apfel. “She was very put together, very much in the mode of the Duchess of Windsor — never a hair out of place. But she made me conscious of style, and particularly made me conscious of accessories.”

Looking back, Apfel recalled that her opinions about style developed at an early age, though they weren’t always as well-informed as now.

“One summer we were at a resort for holiday, and [my mother] took great pleasure in changing my outfits. She’d put me on some kind of a crate and do all the finishing touches. And I remember one day jumping off the crate and screaming wildly. I made so much noise that the other guests came running, thinking that my father was attacking me with a meat cleaver.”

While clearly not a homicide, something nearly as dreadful was afoot: a fashion faux pas. “I was jumping up and down, screaming: ‘It doesn’t match, it doesn’t match,’” said Apfel. “She had a ribbon on me that was an accent color. And I was too young and too stupid to realize that that was really very chic.”

Apfel has no such qualms today about taking daring risks when it comes to style. Instead she relies on her own authentic vision and decades of observation of some of the industry’s greatest talents.

Iris Apfel Apfel is working on a “book of musings” with HarperCollins Meredith Jenks

For the Stems

Iris Apfel’s personal wardrobe is the stuff of legends — not to mention museum exhibitions, such as the 2005 show curated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

Her vast collection of treasures spans a lifetime. In fact, Apfel still has a pair of Ferragamo heels purchased 70 years ago. “They were so fanciful and stunning,” she said.

One particular shoe highlight for Apfel was an accidental meeting with French designer Roger Vivier. When in Paris, she always made a point to visit his shop windows to see his latest custom heels. “I would stand there and drool. I thought it was the most wonderful thing — he had shoes made of feathers and all kinds of whimsical things,” Apfel said.

Then on a trip to a textile mill in Italy, she came face-to-face with Vivier himself. “I walked into the factory office, and there was this vision standing there. I’ve never been starstruck in my life before or since, but I couldn’t talk. I was just, ‘Ooh!’ Anyway, I thought he was a genius.”

The consummate style lover has met and mingled with other footwear legends, including Manolo Blahnik and Stuart Weitzman, whose bar mitzvah she attended.

“I worked on some homes for his parents, and when Stewie was a little guy, he used to follow me around. I’ve admired his work. He’s a very talented guy. I am a great worshipper of professionalism.”

Apfel has also done her own share of shoe design. In the 1950s, she talked a Capri sandal-maker into producing custom shoes and boots according to her unique specifications. The styles, she recalled, were “way, way ahead of their time.”

And for a spell, her Rara Avis collection included a selection of playful heels and flats, which Apfel hopes to bring back in the coming seasons.

Iris Apfel “I think you owe it to your fellow man to look as decent as possible.” — Iris Apfel Meredith Jenks

For now, she has other exciting projects to look forward to.

Apfel is putting the final touches on a book with Harper Collins, due for release in March. “The Accidental Icon,” which she describes as a “book of musings,” draws its name from the serendipity of her life, whether that goes for her partnership with HSN or her highly recognizable look.

“Everything with me just happens; I’ve never had a plan for anything,” Apfel confessed. “I get an idea, and then I try it. I don’t worry about what’s going to happen, because if it’s not so good, the fashion police are not going to take me away. And if they do, it might be a blessing for everyone.”