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July 31, 2015
In Iris and Carl Apfel’s Manhattan apartment, the Christmas decorations stay up for two-thirds of the year. Mechanical toy trains, coloured lights and troops of Nutcracker soldiers adorn the space, whilst a stuffed Kermit the frog lies draped over a life-sized stone ostrich in a corner of a room with a space in its belly for a make-shift bar. At 93-years-old, Iris Apfel doesn’t do things by halves. The subject of the late Albert Maysles’ final documentary is a self-proclaimed ‘geriatric starlet’, quashing stereotypical ideals of fashion, beauty and aging.
Raised in Queens, New York, to modest middle-class parents, Iris Apfel’s story has that rare balance of being wonderfully ordinary and entirely unique. Throughout IRIS, Maysles captures the warmth and affection that surrounds his leading lady simply by observing her everyday life, from her tender exchanges with 101-year-old husband Carl to the students who follow her entranced as she leads them on shopping trips around New York as part of her guest lecture series.
Now a widely recognized fashion face, known for her looking-glass sized spectacles and culturally eclectic dress sense (during the film, we see Apfel showcase outfits including a traditional Chinese Shaman’s cloak and Catholic Priest’s vestments); Apfel is now on her third or fourth career, having originally studied Art History before founding the company Old World Weavers, an interior design firm that counted 9 different US Presidents as clients. Playing down these early achievements, Iris insists: “everything I ever did I never expected to do. It just kind of happened.”
The film captures the curated chaos of Apfel’s aesthetic, inviting the audience to explore her famous collections of clothing, accessories, fabrics and interiors shown piled high into Long Island storage lofts and seamlessly presented at sold out exhibitions at the Met. Whilst it is Iris’ ‘rare bird’ appearance that has made her the muse of the likes of Bill Cunningham and Bruce Weber, there is some methodology behind how she dresses. “I like to improvise – it’s like Jazz”, she says to camera, stacking another chunky bangle onto a delicate wrist and layering another impressive necklace. “People often ask me about my rules, but the truth is I’m always breaking them”.
Apfel’s innovative approach to style has won her a cross-section of admirers from fashion’s elite, something that Maysles shows through interview spots with the designer Dries Van Noten and J-Crew’s Jenna Lyons, as well as candid shots taken from just over Apfel’s shoulder as she attends functions and events.
In one scene we see Iris meet an uncharacteristically star-struck Kanye West, who beams as she tells him she’s a big fan. It’s this absolute lack of pretension that has gained the ever-colourful Apfel legendary status amongst a New York fashion scene dominated by those slickly dressed in black.
Whilst Iris’ style status has been the subject of magazine covers the world over, Maysles introduces us to a lesser-known facet of her life: her long-standing marriage to Carl Apfel.
The couple are a visible testament to the theory that devoted spouses begin to resemble one another, as Carl speaks to the camera in vintage horn-rimmed glasses and an elaborate red and gold studded baseball cap. After 67 years of marriage, the couple still appear completely enamoured with each other, Carl calling Iris her ‘Pussycat’ and Iris calling him her ‘Sweet Child’.
The pair are shot teasing each other in their apartment and bickering softly over yoghurt. By capturing these intimate scenes, Maysles takes IRIS beyond the traditional boundaries of fashion documentary, which seems only fitting for such a groundbreaking lead.
Iris is released in selected UK cinemas on July 31st