You’ve seen her winking down from ads for MAC Cosmetics and smiling back from the pages of the New York Times Sunday Style section, her eyes sparkling behind glasses that make Coke bottles look dainty. “Who is she?” you might have asked while watching Bill Cunningham New York, enamored by the tacky-chic pattern mixing and affable, no-nonsense presence of the self-described “geriatric starlet.” Iris Apfel seems to have come out of nowhere over the past decade, stepping out of her rarified Upper West Side coterie to reach a wider – yet still fashionable – audience. With IRIS, the late documentarian Albert Maysles pulls back the curtain to reveal the life and experiences of this nonagenarian iconoclast.
While Apfel’s millennial ubiquity mirrors that of a Hollywood ingénue, her star steadily rose over a period of several decades. Mayles starts the documentary with a short biographical sketch: the daughter of a glass-and-mirror salesman and a boutique owner in Astoria, Queens, Apfel studied art history at NYU and held down various jobs in fashion and interior design. From Mayles’s perspective, Apfel started becoming the bold-faced name Iris Apfel in 1948, when she married textiles entrepreneur Carl Apfel; the couple owned and operated Old World Weavers for over 40 years.
The couple’s work with Old World Weavers brought them into rarified company, including extensive work at the White House. (One priceless interview finds Carl attempting to describe their work with Jackie Kennedy, only to have Iris repeatedly shush him.) Their travels across the globe allowed Iris to learn more about silhouette, proportion, and color, and throughout the film she shows off the pieces she’s acquired on her globetrotting jaunts. (While Mayles glances at these unusual pieces without judgment, viewers from a younger generational cohort may find that Apfel’s “exotic” collection of hats and necklaces borders on cultural appropriation.)
After grounding the audiences in Apfel’s upbringing and background, Mayles answers the question of how someone spends her days if she lists “fashion icon” on her tax return. We accompany Apfel to photo shoots and on shopping trips, and attend a fashion show with her. Apfel’s unusual sense of style and endearing, understated manner leaves no less a style enthusiast than Kanye West gobsmacked; watching the flamboyant polymath come face-to-face with Apfel suggests a meeting between a Jedi knight and Obi-Wan. Her playful sense of style helps young professionals at a Bloomingdales event step out of their sartorial comfort zones and helps them look – in her singsongy diction – “very Vogue-y.”
Iris’s indomitable drive and presence across various media suggest a tough, smart lady, but Mayles doesn’t stint on the less glamorous points in her life, both within the fashion world and without it. While various curators, designers, and fashion professionals express great respect and understanding for Apfel’s aesthetic and perspective, others on the outskirts don’t always know what to do with her. At a taping for an appearance on Home Shopping Network, the anchor describes Apfel with syrupy condescension that would make a viewer cringe if not for her sharp rejoinder: “you almost make a girl feel like she has hope.” Outside Apfel’s stylish pursuits, the spectre of mortality looms. Seeing fashion designer Olu Dhawa push her through the streets of Harlem in a wheelchair is shocking, given the amount of energy she has in other media, and her reflections on where to bequeath her wardrobe speak to her awareness of life’s impermanence.
Many critics have compared IRIS to GREY GARDENS, a deeply influential documentary Mayles made earlier in his career. This comparison is understandable. While Iris has a greater self-awareness than Little Edie, her musical New York accent recalls the Beales’ dulcet tones, and Iris’s adventurous outfits have made her a muse for millennial fashion designers as Little Edie has for generations past. However, IRIS stirs an even more interesting counterpoint to I AM BIG BIRD, the documentary on Carroll Spinney that recently screened at the Brattle. Apfel and Spinney hail from the same generation and general geographic area, and their innate skills and playful perspective on life has allowed them an international, intergenerational platform. Spinney, however, achieved success at a relatively young age, while Apfel’s renown came at a later time in her life. Both films explore issues of aging and legacy from a perspective made no less poignant for its accessibility. For the nonagenarian ingénue Irish Apfel, life begins at 90.