Many of us outside of New York fashion circles won’t know who Iris Apfel is. That’s okay because you can form an opinion of her as you watch this documentary by the legendary Albert Maysles, who died earlier this year.
You’ll quickly figure out that Iris is the woman with the big, circular eyeglasses, the bright colors, the dozens of bracelets, and the layered necklaces. Her stardom sprang from an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She holds the honor of exhibiting the first one-woman show at the Met. Her medium is costume jewelry, and she provided everything for the exhibit from her large personal collection.
But Iris isn’t just about fashion and accessories. It’s about staying active and relevant as long as you’re alive. Apfel came to prominence with her show at the met when she was 80. She was in her 90s while Maysles was filming her (Maysles himself was in his late 80s). And Iris’ husband Carl celebrates 100 years during the film.
Fun When You Dress
A woman like Iris Apfel could only thrive in a place like New York. Here in the West, for example, we don’t have a fashion scene (that I am aware of). Iris would only be an eccentric here. But in New York, she is appreciated and celebrated. As for New Yorkers, Iris tells the camera she doesn’t they have any style “downtown.” “They all just wear black. It’s not a style any more it’s a uniform.”
Iris covers the usual documentary bases: we get a brief summary of her family, her marriage to Carl, her early career, their decision not to have children. She remembers being told as a young woman, “you’re not pretty, but you have style, which is better.” Pretty will fade, she explains. Style will last your whole life.
Iris spent her middle years as an interior decorator. She and Carl traveled the world buying foreign-made goods — textiles, sculptures, garments, accessories. She remembers looking for a certain old pattern in a fabric. When she couldn’t find it, she commissioned it with a weaver. Not long after, the weaver asked her if she had any more great patterns for him. Iris had graduated from the client to the boss.
They did some interior decorating work with the White House. Carl starts telling the story. “We had some problems with Jackie...” he begins, but Iris cuts him off and reminds him they aren’t supposed to talk about the White House as clients because they don’t like that.
Nowadays, Iris stays busy as a consultant, and the cameras dutifully follow her around. She is interested in education, showing young students in fashion the people, places, and things in New York. She’s also starting to hand over her (remarkably sizable) collection to museums, piece by piece.
Iris sums up her vivid and dense style after buying her husband a bright red baseball cap with gold studs. “Life is gray and dull and you might as well have a little fun when you dress.”
Flies on the Wall
Iris is the first posthumous Albert Maysles documentary, and I don’t know if he was working on any others that haven’t yet been released. Maysles can be heard asking some questions, and he even gets a little bit of screen time as Iris talks to him. But Maysles wasn’t the only filmmaker involved. A woman asks some questions off-camera — was that one of the producers, either Jennifer Ash Rudick, Laura Coxson, or Rebekaah Maysles? Paul Lovelace is credited as the editor and four other camera operators are credited, along with Albert Maysles.
I mention the collaborators because Iris is not a groundbreaking example of documentary filmmaking. It’s fine for what it is, but mostly the filmmakers are content to be (visible) flies on the wall as we watch Iris go about her life. Fifty years ago that was a new and exciting way of presenting a story, but I’m afraid I didn’t find Iris as gripping as Salesman.
So while you don’t have to know who Iris Apfel is to like this documentary, you’ll probably find it more enjoyable if you are at least interested in fashion. Either that, or be curious about what it’s like to still be working at 90.