At 96 years old, style icon Iris Apfel is a self-described “geriatric starlet” with a flair for fashion, design, and combining what’s cheap with what’s chic. Apfel’s creative endeavors have ranged from her career as a textile designer to working as an interior designer for the White House, and producing of her own jewelry and clothing lines.
Apfel was an under-the-radar style force until the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York dedicated a show at the Costume Institute to Apfel’s collection of clothing and jewelry in 2005.
As inspiring as Apfel’s personal style is her decades-long love story with her husband Carl. The couple spent almost 70 years together, during which time they created their own textile company, starred in a documentary together, and maintained a romance that only seemed to grow stronger over the years.
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Here’s how their life together unfolded:
Iris is Born, 1921
Iris Barre was born in Astoria, Queens, New York on August 29, 1921. She was an only child and was raised on a farm by her parents and grandparents, according toThe Guardian. Even as a kid, Iris had a passion for style. “At that time you could ride the whole subway system for a nickel, so each week I would take a different section of New York—Chinatown, Yorkville, Harlem, Greenwich Village. And I really fell in love with the Village,” Iris told The Guardian.
Apfel went on to amass a collection of hundreds of unique pieces from around the world—and she started that process early. “The first piece I ever bought was in Greenwich Village,” Apfel recounted in her 2015 documentary Iris, which is available on Netflix. “I was about maybe 11, 12 years old. There was a little shop in a basement of one of those old-fashioned kind of tenement houses that had the fire escapes outside, and I’ll never forget that place because I thought it was Aladdin’s cave. There was this little man. His name was Mr. Darris, and he was threadbare but elegant. He always wore spats and a monocle…and I always tell everybody he treated me like a mini duchess.”
“I came in and he’d never seen a kid be so interested in all this junk before. I fixed on a brooch. I just thought it was the cat’s pajamas,” she said. “And I really lusted after that piece. We haggled a little bit over the piece. I thought it had been gone, but fortunately for me it was still there. Anyway, I bought it for the magnificent sum of 65 cents. He gave it to me. I was so thrilled, my God.”
Apfel eventually went on to study art history at New York University and attended art school at the University of Wisconsin. She later used her knowledge of fashion and bold sense of design in her work as a copy editor at Women’s Wear Daily.
Iris and Carl Meet in New York, 1947
Iris met Carl Apfel while staying at a resort on Lake George in upstate New York, according to an interview with The Guardian. “Our first date was Columbus Day,” Apfel said. “Thanksgiving, Carl proposed. Christmas I got blinged. Washington’s birthday, we were married.”
Carl and Iris were immediately attracted to one another, and their droll senses of humor are on display in Iris. “There was something about her that just got into me,” Carl says in the documentary. “It’s always there.” Sitting beside him on the couch, Iris gives him a pat on the hand and says, “Awe, my little pussycat … And I figured he was cool and he was was cuddly, and he cooked Chinese, so I couldn’t do any better.”
The Couple Marry, 1948
By February 22, 1948, Iris and Carl were married. “I never wanted a wedding; I wanted to elope,” Apfel admitted in her documentary, as she flipped through an album of old wedding photos, lingering on a picture of her and Carl dancing. “I said I’d rather have the money, but the parents and the grandparents wanted the wedding … It was a fairly small wedding—I think 125 people—but very posh.”
While Iris didn’t get to elope as planned, she did manage to strike a bargain on the wedding dress of her dreams.“The dress was pink lace, and I’m really very practical, so I wanted a dress that I could wear after the wedding and not just put in a box,” Iris explained. “I still have these shoes 66 and a half years later,” she added. “They were pale pink satin. They’re back in style. If you hang around long enough, everything comes back.”
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Together They Found Old World Weavers, 1950
After two years of marriage, Iris and Carl cofounded Old World Weavers textile company, which specialized in restoring furnishings for homes. “We never intended to go into the fabric business,” she said. “Nothing I ever did I intended to do. Everything just kind of happened.”
Iris, who had completed an internship with interior designer Elinor Johnson in the past, had a knack for sourcing the materials and fabrics necessary to restore antique pieces. “She had a very big decorating business,” Carl said in Iris. “I would go along with her. I’d take my little toolbox, hang the pictures. And I got a kick out of watching her make something beautiful.”
Business Booms, 1950 to 1992
As part of their work, the couple worked on projects for the White House under multiple presidencies, including, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton, according to Quartz. But the White House wasn’t the only place Iris and Carl traveled together.
“We did exact reproductions of 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th century fabrics, and I would do my best to get them to be as close as possible to the original,” Iris said. That’s why we traveled so much, because there is no one or two mills that can do everything. It’s all very specialized.” Together, the couple went on trips to places like Turkey, Morocco, and Lebanon twice a year, collecting everything from haute couture pieces to knick knacks that cost a few cents. Iris combined all of these pieces to create one-of-a-kind designs that her clients adored. “I was a busy bee,” Iris said.
SOME OF IRIS’ STYLE COLLECTION AND INTERIOR DESIGN SKILLS CAN BE SEEN SHOWCASED IN THIS VIDEO BY ONE KING’S LANE.
Carl, who accompanied Iris on every trip and helped pick out pieces they could work with, recalled Iris’s passion shopping. “When you get to know some of the dealers like we did, they’d open up some of the places for us like you’ve never seen before,” Carl said. “They’d open at a certain hour and they’d close at a certain hour. Who do you think was the last one? Iris.”
Iris and Carl decided not to have children, in part because they traveled so often—and in part because Iris was as dedicated to the unconventional in her domestic life as she was in her personal style. “I don’t believe in a child having a nanny, so it wasn’t what we were going to do, but also having children is like protocol,” Iris told the Guardian. “You’re expected to. And I don’t like to be pigeonholed.”
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Iris’s Personal Collection Goes on Display, 2005
At 83-years-old, Iris was well into her retirement from the interior design industry when Harold Koda, the curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, contacted her in hopes of showcasing her unique fashion sense in an exhibit. The museum’s previously-scheduled show had cancelled unexpectedly and Koda and his team were left scrambling to put on a show with a compelling story that was easy to set up before opening day.
Apfel agreed. In Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection, the museum highlighted everything from her iconic oversized tortoise shell glasses to her whimsical patterned coats and colorful, chunky costume jewelry. “Iris is an artist. What she uses all her clothing and accessories to do is compose a new vision,” said Koda in Iris. “That, for me, is creativity.”
“You never know what’s going to happen with this child—surprise, surprise,” Carl said of his wife. “It’s not a dull marriage, I can tell you that.” Iris lavished her sensibility on her husband too. She used to pick out unique pieces for Carl, even into his 90s. From paisley orange pants that match the lining of her own jacket to a red baseball cap with spiked gold studs across the front and the same classic tortoise shell glasses she is so well known for, Iris made sure Carl’s wardrobe was never boring either.
Carl Passes Away, 2015
Carl was 100 years old when he and Iris allowed the film crew to document their life for Iris. “I want to do more things in this life with my child bride, and if the Lord let’s me do it, I’ll sure enjoy it,” Carl had said. He passed away that same year, just three days before his 101st birthday, on August 1, 2015.
Just as Iris had her own exception style and sense of fashion, Carl wore a ring he never went without, according to the New York Times. The large Egyptian ring was inscribed with the phrase “Where Is the House of Thy Father?” Iris convinced an antiquarian to sell her the ring off of his own finger in Dublin during the 1950s, and Carl never took it off, likely because it was stuck. Two days before he died, the ring fell off.
Despite having lost her husband two years ago, Iris’ love for fashion is undimmed. “I always like to do things as if I’m playing jazz; try this, try that,” Iris said. “With me, it’s not intellectual. It’s all gut … It’s totally, totally the involvement and the process. It’s the process I like much better even than wearing it … People interview me and they keep asking if I have any rules. And I say, I don’t have any rules because I would only be breaking them, so it’s a waste of time.”