She was never a great beauty, a model or magazine editor, never married anybody famous. But somehow, Iris Apfel was annointed a New York “fashion icon.”
That’s out of the ordinary in itself. That Apfel achieved this status, with her vast collection of couture accessories earning a Metropolitan Museum of Art show followed by newspaper profiles and magazine covers, well into her ’80s, is what makes her rise astonishing, and worthy of “Iris,” one of the last documentaries of the late and great Albert Maysles.
The godfather of “fly on the wall” documentaries (“Grey Gardens”, “When We Were Kings”) followed the now ninetysomething Apfel as she bounced around Manhattan, giving talks, supervising makeovers, and getting dolled up.
“Iris” studies this poster girl for “Dress to Excess.” Bangled and bedazzled to the max in her garishly mismatched outfits, wading through her decades of designer duds — and necklaces and bracelets — all topped by champagne-colored hair and glasses the size of demitasse saucers, she is lauded by one and all for “making it work.”
And Maysles, 88 when he died earlier this year and very much her contemporary, lets you think “He’s having us on” or “The Empress has no clothes because she has too many.” At least for a while.
“My mother worshipped at the altar of the accessory,” Iris cracks as rings and bracelets rattle with every gesture. And yes, before you ask, she married money.
But over the course of her long life, Iris Apfel shifted from magazine work to interior design. Her husband Carl (who cleared 100 in 2014) bought a fabric importer in the 1940s and she became an expert buyer. She decorated and re-decorated the White House under multiple presidents.
She is an icon for being “at the intersection of fashion, interior design and art,” as one museum curator puts it.
Maysles follows her to swap meets and street bazaars, her trained eye picking out this unusual bauble or that one. She haggles. “That’s where my money goes,” Carl sings, “to buy my baby’s clothes.”
And all along life’s way she acquired things and never gave them up, warehousing some of it, packing the rest into the apartment she shares with Carl.
Maysles could have made this another “Grey Gardens,” seeing Apfel as just a well-heeled hoarder. But Apfel never comes off as eccentric, just singular.
She tells Maysles, and young women she meets and others she schools in style the same thing, a life lesson for how to get dressed in the morning in the most competitive city on Earth.
“I like…individuality, so much lost these days.” And nobody could ever accuse “Iris” of not practicing what she preaches.
MPAA Rating: PG – 13 for some strong language
Cast: Iris Apfel
Credits: Directed by Albert Maysles. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:20