Style Icon Iris Apfel, an American Original, Is Dead at 102


“You’ve either got or you haven’t got style,” goes the old Sammy Cahn lyric. “If you’ve got it, you stand out a mile.” Iris Apfel, with her signature oversized glasses and distinctive outfits—who died today in Palm Beach—stood out a mile, and then some.

The centenarian wore her age well. On the occasion of her 100th birthday, the indefatigable fashion influencer and style icon posted an Instagram slideshow displaying things she was older than. These included: the Cyclone roller coaster, the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, and the Empire State Building. Within the fashion world, she was—in a word—a monument.

In September 2022, at the age of 101, she posted her thoughts on fashion versus style to her more than two million social media followers. They are “two entirely different things,” she said. “You can easily buy your way into being fashionable. Style, I think, is in your DNA. It implies originality and courage. The worst that can happen is you can fail, and you don’t die from that.”

It was certainly in her DNA. In Iris, Albert Maysles’s 2014 award-winning documentary, Apfel recalled being taken aside by Loehmann’s department store founder Frieda Loehmann, who told her, “Young lady, I’ve been watching you. You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. You have something much better. You have style.” Her philosophy that “more is more and less is a bore” made her a self-described “accidental icon” (which is also the title of her 2018 memoir) and “geriatric starlet.”

In 2005, the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition of Apfel’s clothes. “Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection” presented 40 of her sartorially striking accessories and ensembles. In Maysles’s documentary, Harold Koda, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the time, noted, “She’s an artist. What she uses all of her clothing and accessories to do is compose a new vision. That, to me, is creativity.”

Apfel was an American original. Martha Stewart once dubbed her “a legendary collector of fashion”—part archivist, part aesthete, part social anthropologist. Apfel radically juxtaposed high and low fashion, as The Met noted: “Dior haute couture with flea market finds, 19th-century ecclesiastical vestments with Dolce & Gabbana lizard trousers. With remarkable panache and discernment, she combines colors, textures, and patterns without regard to period, provenance, and, ultimately, aesthetic conventions.”

She described her personal style to Vogue in 2022: “It’s big and it’s bold and it’s a tangible expression about how I feel about things.” One thing it was not, she emphasized, was planned. “I just do it unconsciously,” she said. “It is a creative exercise that I seem to do every day.”

Apfel was born Iris Barrel in New York City on August 29, 1921. An only child, she wrote in her memoir that she began buying her own clothes when she was 12. She credits her grandmother with first igniting her creative spark by giving her fabric swatches to play with at family gatherings. “My eyes popped,” she told Vogue. “She said, ‘Look, you can play with all these scraps—just play and do whatever you want with them, and at the end of the day, if you’ve had a good time and you like them, I’ll let you take home six pieces of your choice.’ It was the entrance to my life in the textile world. I had the time of my life. It was so exciting for me to put colors together. It was my first dose of how it feels to be creative. I must have been about five years old.”

Her mother, Sayde “Syd” Barrel, who attended college and then law school—but dropped out when she became pregnant with Iris—opened a boutique during the Great Depression. In her memoir, Apfel recalls Easter 1933, when her mother gave her $25 to assemble an outfit to wear in the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade. She found a dress for $12.95 and a pair of pumps for $3.95, which left her enough money for a straw bonnet, a light lunch, and transportation home. “My mother approved my fashion sense,” she wrote. “My father praised my financial skill.” Thus began her career as, in her words, a “black belt shopper.”


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