“Are people at Columbia even interested in fashion?” asked Iris Apfel, the 93-year-old subject of the late Albert Maysles’ final documentary “Iris,” which opens next Wednesday.
The documentary is a portrait of identity, devotion, and a well-lived life. Albert Maysles began filming the cinematic portrait in 2011, with the documentary premiering during the 2014 New York Film Festival this past fall.
And as Apfel told me this week, it started when Maysles called Apfel and proposed the idea.
“I met him over the telephone. ... He called and he wanted to do a documentary, and I wasn’t interested. And then my friends all chastised me, telling me I was being very foolish. ... So, one thing lead to another and we did it. He was a wonderful gentleman,” Apfel said.
The film follows Apfel in her day-to-day life with numerous tight sequences of her burrowing her way through both her New York and Palm Beach apartments, piled high with curios. Interspersed throughout the film are biopic montages, detailing Apfel’s childhood in Astoria, Queens and her marriage to and professional partnership with her husband Carl Apfel.
It was in these early years together that Apfel, who initially began her career working at Women’s Wear Daily, transitioned to interior decoration and received a commission that required the reproduction of a hard-to-find fabric. After having successfully reproduced it and others for projects of hers, she and her husband, along with a partner, began the company Old World Weavers, which sought out discontinued fabrics and reproduced them in the most historically accurate manner possible.
Their clients included White House administrations beginning with Truman, the U.S. Senate, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seeking out new designs and locating mills to replicate them, Iris and Carl began to circumnavigate the globe.
During these years of trekking through endless souks, flea markets, and bazaars, Apfel felt drawn to collecting accessories and local garments on a larger scale. This process of searching, learning, and discovering is what she credits as the driving force behind her trademark ensembles, which embodies this cosmopolitan ethos.
“I am a great believer in process. The result is not enough,” Apfel explains.
Ultimately, the Apfels were offered a sum too good to pass up by textile giant Stark and opted to sell the company. The compulsion to collect accessories, however, had begun much earlier in Apfel’s life, far before Old World Weavers.
It was the need to cultivate her appearance that prompted her to begin acquiring pieces at age 11 or 12 from a threadbare shopkeeper in Greenwich Village.
“I never felt pretty,” she states in the documentary. “I don’t feel pretty now. I am not a pretty person. I don’t like pretty.”
Some of the film’s most poignant moments are when Apfel insouciantly scavenges in shops, wherein her fiendish desire to examine all that is around her reveals her palpable and unceasing curiosity.
Yet after the 2005 exhibition “Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection” at the Met, curated by Harold Koda, plenty of people were curious about Iris.
The exhibition then traveled to Palm Beach’s Norton Museum of Art, Long Island’s Nassau County Museum of Art, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
The public’s response was immediate and certain. Apfel quickly became a cult figure, celebrated for her disregard for conventional dressing, which she eschews in favor of a high-low mix of garments, punctuated by oftentimes curiously alluring accessory amalgamations. And while the ensembles change, her trademark large black glasses and blue-rinsed coupe are constant.
Apfel’s last quip in the movie is “I’m really uninterested in beauty ... but the rest of the world isn’t with me.” What one takes from this, however, is that she is not interested in conventional notions of beauty.
Maysles’ film ultimately brings these personality traits into focus along with what is so often overlooked: Apfel’s serious pragmatism and unyielding work ethic. Iris, the film and woman, are therefore remarkable in their originality and straightforwardness.
“Iris” will open in select theaters on April 29.
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Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the company Iris sold her business to and the administration with which the presidential commissions began. Spectator regrets the errors.