This essay by INDULGE Contributing Stylist Elysze Held recounts her longtime friendship with fashion and design icon Iris Apfel. At 96, Apfel has released a new memoir, Accidental Icon: Musings of a Geriatric Starlet. Held traveled to New York to interview her friend upon the book’s release.
My Un-Accidental Friendship with Iris Apfel
The narrative surrounding Iris Apfel seems to be endless: Fashion Icon, Empress of Style, The Real Deal, True Original, and, of course, her most famous moniker, Geriatric Starlet. I can only describe her as my friend.
With the release of her new book, Accidental Icon, she retains her title of the “coolest nonagenarian” on the planet. She is most proud of the memoir. We read some of the early reviews together; she pointed out a fan’s five-star review that said, “I want to be Iris when I grow up!” (“Be my guest,” she laughed.)
I have been blessed to hear firsthand what really are the Musings of a Geriatric Starlet, all with flawless recollection. She delights especially in retelling how she coined herself the geriatric starlet.
“It was 2005, around Christmastime, during the run of the show at the Met (Iris-Bird of a Feather). NYU was having a fashion symposium, and I was invited to be interviewed. I was on stage and there was audience participation. One of the designers, Albert Hadley, jumped up and said, ‘With your show, you have given New York City the loveliest Christmas present. What has New York done for you?’ I said right away, ‘Well, I always thought to show at the Met you had to be dead, but it seems to have made me a geriatric starlet.’ It just popped into my head and it stuck. Many people have said since: ‘You are a star, not a starlet.’ I said I’d rather be a starlet, it buys me more time!”
From Palm Beach to New York, always stories with Iris
I experienced Iris’ quick wit and warmth many a time. In 2013, working on the film Iris, we were walking around a flea market in Palm Beach, trailed by Albert Maysles and his camera, filming for the documentary on her life. It was here that I first heard the term geriatric starlet. A vendor there stopped us and asked Iris, “Who are you? You are somebody.” She immediately responded with, “We are all somebody — I’m just a geriatric starlet!”
I have always appreciated watching her respond to her fans. She would take a moment with each and make them feel special. That talent of being so gracious is one of the best parts of who she is; what you see is what you get. I have accompanied her a few times in New York to one of her pop-up shops and appearances at This Is Story, a gallery-like retail store in Chelsea. And I’ve seen her spend time with every last person who lined up around the block for a chance to peruse her pop-up shop. This is what she does, and she loves it and lives for it.
And the stories! Sitting at her kitchen table in Palm Beach or in her New York apartment, she always tells stories with a bit of history and a lot of wit. Stories about Sunday brunch at Estee Lauder’s compound in Palm Beach, about Greta Garbo coming into their showroom at Old World Weavers, about Carl, her equally extraordinary husband who passed away in 2015.
My favorite stories? Her recollections of her college days — like the time she wrote two papers to get the grade from a professor of which she was his only student: one on jazz, and the other on hats. For the jazz paper, stealing away to see the charming jazz great, her new friend, Duke Ellington. And then there are her hats:
“I used to wear hats like crazy — huge, marvelous hats. My favorites were from a Parisian designer named Svend, and he was absolutely spectacular. He made big, wonderful hats. He always saved the really good ones for me, and I bought them all. But! He never had hat boxes big enough to send them back to New York. So I got hat boxes made for the fabulous hats, which ended up costing more than the hats. Then the glasses came along!”
Designing the White House for U.S. Presidents and First Ladies
Iris is known for her eclectic style, how she puts it all together, what she is wearing. But Iris Apfel was first and most notably an interior designer. She is an American icon, not simply because her sense of personal style is unmatched anywhere in the world, but her appreciation of history is remarkable. She and Carl participated in making history. Their company, Old World Weavers, worked with the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts for White House restoration projects for nine presidents. And she is quite adamant regarding the strict guidelines they were under.
“The really proper historic restoration has nothing to do with the taste or personality of any of the first ladies who inhabited the White House. We were not there to create but to restore, to work with the history that is there. Then we did a lot of work in the private quarters, where the first ladies could decorate according to their taste. We especially liked working with Pat Nixon. She was the most interested in the project, and we loved going back and forth to the White House in our old Maserati!”
Iris is often quoted as saying that in order “to be interesting, you have to be interested.” What I love about having a conversation with her is that she always asks questions about me. She doesn’t hold back on her pet peeves either. By nature, she is unashamedly candid.
“In my book, I made reference to what is happening with this young generation. There is a chapter in the book called The Smart Phone is Not Your Brain! There is no sense of decorum, no manners, no politeness. You see people in very expensive restaurants, people sitting across from each other and they are individually engaged on their smartphones. That is not smart. Conversation is smart! The art of conversation is dead! I am a very curious person, yet their idea of curiosity is to answer a question they looked up on the Internet. Even their emotions come vicariously, reading about celebrities and what they eat, where they go, what they wear.”
But Iris and her beloved Carl? They knew not just to record life or Snapchat it or Instagram it, but to really live it. Beyond her authentic and visually fascinating style, Iris is gracious, well-mannered, genial and respectful, with an unbridled sense of decorum.
And most of all: She is a good friend.