Iris Apfel's lessons on life and style: 'More is more and less is a bore'

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Josephine Tovey

Iris wears merino wool wrap scarf, wool vest, printed silk shirt and pants, all from Blue Illusion. Accessories, Iris's own

Iris wears merino wool wrap scarf, wool vest, printed silk shirt and pants, all from Blue Illusion. Accessories, Iris's own Photo: Daniela Federici

There are plenty of grand dames seeing out their years in the classic apartments of New York's well-to-do Upper East Side, but only one of them was spending this wintry afternoon in her home posing for an international fashion shoot.

Iris Apfel, 94, went from being a prominent interior decorator and collector known for her distinctive, extravagant and playful sense of style to an international style icon a decade ago, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed a collection of her clothes and costume jewellery and dubbed her the "Rare Bird".

Since then, she has become a bona fide celebrity (or "geriatric starlet" as she calls herself) modelling for brands such as M.A.C, appearing in Vogue, launching her own line of jewellery and even starring in a documentary about her life, the Albert Maysles-directed Iris.

"Retirement is a fate worse than death": Iris Apfel.

"Retirement is a fate worse than death": Iris Apfel. Photo: Daniela Federici

Though ostensibly famous for her brash, creative way with fashion, Apfel's celebrity owes as much to her attitude. Her dry sense of humour, biting one-liners (delivered in a thick Queens accent) and matter-of-fact way of looking at the world makes her a rare darling of the fashion world – fabulous but not a phony.

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Today's shoot, a campaign starring Apfel for the Australian fashion brand Blue Illusion, is taking place in the Rare Bird's very own bower.

After passing a phalanx of white-gloved doormen and figuring out which of the quaint elevators in her building rises to her apartment, I can barely get a foot through her front door before noticing that it's bursting with stuff – oodles and oodles of glorious stuff. There are art and design books stacked a metre high, rows of fur coats, tiny slippers spilling from inside closets, Chinese vases, antique clocks, framed portraits of dogs ... and a huge stuffed lion resting on the bathtub.

It is safe to say the trendy KonMari (Marie Kondo) decluttering movement – popular with Gwyneth Paltrow and other celebrities – has not permeated this fabulously kitsch corner of Manhattan. It is the home that Apfel shared with her beloved husband Carl – also an avid collector and "style icon in his own right", according to The New York Times – who passed away at the age of 100 just a few months ago. Iris and Carl had been married for more than 60 years.

Today it is also cluttered with cameras, lights and people, frenetically at work. In the centre of it all, perched on a vintage upholstered armchair, is Apfel. Her purple-rinse hair is freshly cut and she is dressed in pleather trousers, zebra ballet slippers and her trademark enormous owl-eye spectacles. About 15 pieces of chunky jewellery hang from her neck and wrists, giving her the air of a punkish Upper East Side dowager.

When the shooting wraps, I pull up an equally opulent chair for a chat about becoming a "geriatric starlet".

What was it like to become famous in your 80s?

Oh, I think it's wonderful, it's a great time. Most people my age are out to pasture, where I guess I should be. But I like to work. Retirement is a fate worse than death. I like to keep busy.

I've never been someone who likes to sit around and dish with the girls – I've worked all my life. I've been very, very busy and I like to do things that are productive. Particularly now that I've lost my husband. We were together for 68 years and I lost him this summer ... I really need to keep busy. So I'm hysterically busy now, it's almost insane.

Where do you get the energy from?

I don't know. I wonder.

Has there been a downside to all the attention you've received?

Sometimes. I am basically a very private person. I don't like people poking into my life and asking me questions, but at the same time it's very flattering that people are interested and that people stop me all the time for a photograph.

You always seem to be asked what your secret to great style is.

There are no secrets! People want advice and people want answers, they want instant everything. They just want to press a button and it's done. Everything takes time and effort, and you have to work on it. You can't have style unless you know who you are, and knowing who you are is not an easy matter. Young people, they give it a lot of lip service but they don't work at it.

If style is about knowing who you are then, in some ways, it might be easier to be stylish as you get older, because you know yourself better.

I never thought about it from that point of view but it makes sense. I don't think, at 45, that you can go and all of a sudden be stylish. It has to be something that you grow. The more you cultivate something the better you get at it.

Do you need a lot of money to be stylish?

Absolutely not, one thing has nothing to do with the other. It's a matter of attitude, attitude, attitude. You can have the most beautiful clothes in the world and you just have no style. There are so many people who have beautiful five-figure evening dresses or beautiful jewellery but it doesn't go together, or it doesn't suit them, and it's just stuff.

Some of the most stylish people I've ever seen were in Naples at the end of the Second World War. Even if they wore rags they put them together in a way that looked fabulous.

A lot of what you wear strikes me as not terribly comfortable – very heavy jewellery, for example. Do you dress for comfort?

Of course, if I'm not comfortable I'm not going to wear it. I like these things and I'm used to them. I mean, I do have a few things that are hideously heavy, big Indian pieces – sorry, Native American pieces – that are so heavy.

I have to be assured that I won't have to stand for six or seven minutes otherwise I can't wear them out. I'd fall down.

I have heard you describe the way you dress as being like jazz. What did you mean by that?

I improvise. And that's what jazz is, improvisation – you're not quite sure what's going to come out. But if you have a sure hand, you know, something good happens. Not always, but most of the time.

Tell me more about how you and Carl decorated your apartment.

These are all things we collected in our travels and bought along the way. I bought very few things specifically for the apartment. They're just things I collected, I throw 'em all together like a jigsaw puzzle. It's the same way I dress, it's the same sensibility.

There is a new interior decorating trend towards minimalism; it's all about decluttering the home. Well, I don't like that. To me, more is more and less is a bore.

The documentary about your life, Iris, came out this year. Critics described it as not just a film about fashion, but a love story between you and Carl.

Yes, a lot of people said that. I was very touched. When I thought about it, it is a love story because I'm doing all the things I love, and then it was the story of my husband and I. At the beginning I was very annoyed that they wanted to take so much footage of us at home. I thought, it's nobody's business. But I'm glad, now that he's gone, that we did it.

Do you think it captures the essence of your relationship?

Yes. It's all very natural and it's all me. There was nothing phony about it. 

IRIS APFEL ON...

Online shopping

"I cannot buy anything that I cannot see and touch."

Selfies

"People don't ask for autographs any more, and that's because the young ones don't know how to read or write."

Declining clothing quality

"You pay ten times what you paid years ago, the fabrics are shoddy, the workmanship is terrible ... I don't think clothes today are made to last."