Filmmaker Maysles focuses on oversize style of Iris Apfel

Interior decorator and well known fashionista Iris Apfel is the subject of a new documentary by filmmaker Albert Maysles. 

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Two older Jewish icons of originality, one behind the camera and one in front, make for fascinating cinema in “Iris,” as legendary documentarian Albert Maysles shines a spotlight on a fashion “starlet” — 93-year-old Iris Apfel. 

No need for an interest in fashion to enjoy this delightful portrait of a sharp-witted, one-of-a-kind woman, although plenty is here for fashionistas as well as fans of art and culture. 

Well known in the fashion world, interior decorator Apfel quipped about being a “geriatric starlet” after a 2005 exhibit of her work at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art became a hit. “Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection” featured a collection of her couture costume accessories and colorful outfits and  became a travelling exhibit featured in several museums and galleries. 

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Apfel has a flare for making an entrance, and a personality as big as her oversize necklaces and large round glasses. But it is her work ethic, intelligence and independent spirit that are the real focus of this film. Growing up in New York in Queens during the Great Depression, in a Jewish family that emphasized hard work, she talks with lively humor about life, love and style. 

This 2014 film was the next to last for Albert Maysles, who died in March (his final film is “In Transit”). Albert and brother David Maysles, who died in 1987, were the sons of Jewish immigrants. Known for such groundbreaking documentaries as “Grey Gardens” and “Gimme Shelter,” the Maysles originated the fly-on-the-wall style of documentary filmmaking, allowing the story to unfold naturally. 

After his brother’s death, Albert Maysles continued to make films about unusual people and unexplored topics. 

Individualism and a rejection of sameness are themes of “Iris.” Maysles follows around the always-moving Apfel as she recounts tales of her globetrotting life and describes her unique vision. She is confident but never egotistical, a woman who encourages everyone to embrace freedom from fashion conformity. 

During the film, a number of art and fashion figures comment on Apfel’s significance in the world of design, historic fabrics, art and fashion. Among them are  Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Harold Koda; photographer Bruce Weber; and designers Duro Olowu, Dries van Noten, Naeem Khan and Alexis Bittar, 

Apfel likens her construction of an outfit to jazz improvisation. Her colorful outfits are a mix of vintage, ethnic and repurposed garments bedecked with large costume jewelry, and are the center of Apfel’s fashion style, which she carries off with joy, intelligence and defiant independence. For example, she recuts a traditional Tibetan robe and combines it with layers of chunky amber and silver necklaces and enormous bracelets repurposed from a variety of sources. 

Outfits designed by Apfel, whose image you may have seen on magazine covers or in fashion ads peering through her large round glasses, are almost architectural, reflecting her career as an interior designer. They have been called eccentric, but she considers Isaac Mizrahi and Paris-based Israeli designer Alber Elbaz among her fans. 

Her outfits demand attention and make Apfel the center of attention without drawing particular focus to her face or figure, a very clever bit of sleight-of-hand revealing a calculating intelligence underneath. 

“My mother worshiped at the altar of the accessory,” she quips. 

When she was young, Apfel frequented a particular dress shop whose owner watched her clientele from a perch in the store. One day, the owner called young Iris over and told her that she would never be beautiful but that she had something better than good looks. She had style. 

After studying art and art history at New York University, Apfel built on that sense of style to craft a career in interior design and restoration, using period textiles for historic mansions including the White House. 

She and her husband, Carl Apfel, to whom she has been married for 67 years, founded Old World Weavers to re-create fabrics of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, filling a much-needed niche. The couple, who never had children, traveled the world and filled their homes with toys and unique finds. Their apartment on Park Avenue and house in Palm Beach are packed with furniture, clothes and tchotchkes, a mix of art, couture, ethnic textiles and flea-market finds.

Spending time with charming, funny, restless Iris Apfel is pure delight, as she rattles off an endless stream of stories. From time to time, she speaks to Maysles behind the camera, and the second camera even turns to him occasionally. These scenes increase the warmth and the personal tone of this appealing film from one icon to another.