One of the frequent laments of the fashion press is the disappearance of individuality from the red carpet in the age of the all-powerful celebrity stylist. Veteran documentary maestro Albert Maysles‘ Iris is a captivating salute to a proud flag-bearer for that vanished attribute, the legendary New York clotheshorse and design darling Iris Apfel.
Comparison seems inevitable with another defiantly original style revolutionary immortalized in a Maysles portrait, “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale in Grey Gardens. But what makes the sharp-as-a-tack nonagenarian Apfel such splendid company is that beneath the busy prints and multi-layered accessories is a woman who is less an eccentric than an ineffably sane, sensible commentator on her own colorful life and the world she inhabits.
“I don’t like pretty,” says Apfel, acknowledging that she was never a conventional beauty. She ascribes her extraordinary longevity as a fashion icon to having learned from an early age the value of developing a personal style. One suspects the confidence to pull it off with such panache is something she was born with.
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Maysles opens his film with Apfel rejecting the sameness prevalent in contemporary wardrobe trends as she talks him (and us) through a sample selection of her outfits. Her signature look is outsize glasses, bold mixed prints and extravagant costume jewelry. That usually involves forearms jangling with chunky bangles and a neck draped in strand upon strand of large beads and baubles.
Through interviews with the subject, her friend and frequent photographer Bruce Weber, designer fans like Dries van Noten, Naeem Khan and Alexis Bittar, and style pundits like Harold Koda of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Maysles assembles a loose account of the life and work of a remarkable and influential woman.
Via Iris and her husband of more than 65 years, Carl Apfel — who turned 100 in August, while the doc was being completed — the film also doubles as a warm appreciation of the rewards of a lifelong private and professional partnership. That union appears to be based on mutual understanding and the sharing of both a distinctive style aesthetic and a sense of fun.
Standard biographical detail is kept to a minimum. Instead, Maysles favors illuminating glimpses and random but telling recollections. “My mother worshipped at the altar of the accessory,” says Apfel, tracing the root of that key component in her own style. We see her shopping at vintage outlets, swap meets and thrift stores for clothes and trinkets, as well as in 16mm home movies shot by Carl during their twice-yearly trips abroad in younger years. Weber calls Apfel an artist, who even at 93, engages with everyone around her. A shrewd haggler when the situation permits, she is the living definition of the term “creative shopper.”
Editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest Margaret Russell is among those weighing in on the Apfels’ contribution to interior design, notably as founders of leading artisanal fabric manufacturing company Old World Weavers. They worked on fabric restoration projects in many of the great homes of America, including the White House under several administrations. And their own much-photographed homes are like lived-in museums, from their New York apartment on Park Avenue to their Palm Beach home stuffed with toys and games. “It’s the perfect house for two children,” says Weber.
The film traces Apfel’s increased recognition as a public figure to a series of museum shows starting with a 2005 Met costume exhibit dubbed “Rara Avis: Selections From the Iris Apfel Collection.” Preparations for an homage to her look in the windows of Bergdorf Goodman, a cover shoot for Dazed magazine, and an HSN appearance to sell her accessories line provide further testament to her influence.
A tour of her multi-room closets and storage facilities bulging with furnishings, fabric panels, paintings and antiques makes Carrie Bradshaw’s conspicuous consumerism look like amateur hour. However, attention is also given to the piece-by-piece donation of Apfel’s collection to the Peabody Essex Museum, and to the poignancy of separation from an adored ethnic coat or a pair of pants made out of a church vestment.
There are plenty of personal style maxims peppered throughout the subject’s conversations — “Color can raise the dead,” for instance. But the film is less about Apfel’s flamboyance than her grounded worldview and undiminished passion for her chosen field. The latter comes through in her guest-lecturer spots for the University of Texas, during which she instills in her students a respect for the disappearing handcrafted trades. Khan says that her insatiable curiosity is what keeps her young.
While Apfel acknowledges the toll of health issues and fatigue, the clear impression that emerges is of a woman who thrives on constant activity and brings a rigorous work ethic to everything she does. She is candid and unsentimental about the couple’s choice not to have children, instead focusing on her career. Apfel is also unequivocal in her opposition to cosmetic surgery: “Some very important people I know, they come out looking like a Picasso.”
That irreverence is stamped all over this delightful study, which is enlivened by some lovely interaction between its subject and her portraitist, Maysles. At 87, the filmmaker is right up there with Apfel as someone who, even in his dotage, still has something vital to say about inspiration and creativity.
Production company: Maysles Films Inc.
Cast: Iris Apfel, Carl Apfel, Bruce Weber, Dries van Noten, Harold Koda, Naeem Khan, Margaret Russell, Alexis Bittar, Duro Olowu, Linda Fargo
Director: Albert Maysles
Producers: Laura Coxson, Rebekah Maysles, Jennifer Ash Rudick
Executive producer: Doreen Small
Directors of photography: Albert Maysles, Nelson Walker III, Sean Price Williams
Editor: Paul Lovelace
Music: Steve Gunn, Justin Tripp
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
No MPAA rating, 74 minutes