For years, high-end fashion designers have tried to recruit Iris Apfel to wear their clothes as she makes her rounds in Manhattan. The reason they would want to align themselves with her is obvious. One of New York’s most recognizable fashion mavens, Apfel, now 93, attracts attention wherever she goes in her creatively constructed, brightly colored ensembles. Apfel is flattered when top designers come after her, but she couldn’t be less interested. “Why would I take their clothes? I have my own clothes,” she said in a modest understatement. Her outfits numbered 300 at their peak, spilling out of closets and inhabiting entire rooms in her Park Avenue apartment. She is known for her eccentric pairings such as putting together Dolce & Gabbana lizard trousers with 19th century ecclesiastical vestments and for accessorizing haute couture with outlandish costume jewelry uncovered in flea markets in such places as India, Tibet or Venice. With a new documentary focusing solely on her, Apfel is the latest example of a woman of a certain age heralded as a style icon. She joins ranks with Joni Mitchell, 71, featured in Saint Laurent ads; author Joan Didion, 80, in ads for Celine; and actress Charlotte Rampling, 68, modeling luxurious lipsticks from NARS. “Iris,” which opened Friday, is sure to elevate Apfel’s renown. It’s directed by titan documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who died soon after completing it. Together, with his late brother David, they made unforgettable films like “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens.” The camera loves Apfel, who is in almost every scene, a singular figure in eyeglasses covering much of her face and bangles stacked up on both arms like firewood. She’s barely 5-foot-3 but projects like a colossus. Her oversize personality comes across even on the phone. She says of her style of dressing, “I like to improvise. It’s like I am doing jazz.” On the lookout for new items, Apfel forages the streets of New York, particularly Seventh Avenue, and wherever the peripatetic couple land. Any purchase “has to feel right to me. I do everything by the gut.” Her clothes education commenced when she was 4, the beloved only grandchild on both sides of her family, and one grandmother allowed her to play with bundles of fabric leftover from sewing. “It was dazzling to me, all those textures. I’m sure that is the genesis of my fabric phase,” said Apfel, who owned a prestigious fabric company with her husband for many years. Apfel sharpens her eye by going to museums and analyzing what makes certain pieces priceless. She also keeps up on fashion trends, believing “you can’t learn style, but you can learn about fashion.” Ten years ago, Apfel’s collection, culled over four decades, was rewarded with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum called “Rara Avis: Selections From the Iris Apfel Collection,” spotlighting 40 of her objects d’art. It traveled to museums in Salem, Mass., and West Palm Beach (where Apfel and her 100-year-old husband Carl Apfel keep a second home) spreading the word about this true American original. Style came to her naturally. A step into one of her closets, and she is like Jackson Pollock flinging and spattering. “I’ll put something on and I will say, ‘Let’s see — will this go with that?’ I always mix and match. I just get a feeling when things are right together. Then I go to accessorize. I feel naked without my necklaces and bracelets,” says Apfel, whose line of jewelry is sold on HSN. Her advice for women seeking a personal style is simple and direct. She believes they must get to know themselves first. “Too many women look in a mirror and see somebody else — Angelina Jolie maybe? But you have to be honest with yourself. What are your good features and your bad features?” For women of a certain age, she has three don’ts: “Don’t wear miniskirts, don’t bare your arms, and don’t wear your hair down to your waist. “But you don’t have to wear a sackcloth and ashes. Dress for who you are.” Ruthe Stein is a San Francisco freelance writer. E-mail: email@example.com
McClatchy-Tribune News Service Iconic New Yorker Iris Apfel is known for accessorizing haute couture with outlandish costume jewelry.
Claire Carlevaro wore sweaters, pleated skirts and bobby socks when she was in college in the 1950s. It was a decade when conformity was expected. “You didn’t want to stick out,” she recalled. Her second time around a college campus is a different story. Carlevaro, an energetic 77-year-old with a short spiky haircut, turns heads striding from class to class at the Fromm Institute, a special learning program for people over 50 at the University of San Francisco. Her distinct fashion style was cultivated during the years she ran an art gallery in San Francisco. Carlevaro has become a walking billboard for artists whose work she admires. On a sunny afternoon on campus, she wore an example of the statement jewelry she favors: A multistrand oversize white necklace made from a plastic milk carton. “I’m very interested in jewelry made from the salvaging of materials,” said Carlevaro, whose bracelet was made on a 3-D printer. She buys jewelry at craft shows and from Velvet da Vinci on Upper Polk and stores them on hooks occupying an entire wall in her Russian Hill apartment. To assure her accessories dominate an ensemble, she favors simple solid color jackets with matching pants. This day she wore black with a white silk blouse. Her palette includes beige, navy and gray outfits from MIO on Fillmore. Her shoes are mainly comfortable flats enlivened by socks hand-painted by artists from Kati Koos on Sutter Street. “The fashion lessons I have learned is to be myself and to celebrate things I care about, which is artist-made jewelry,” she said. — R.S.