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Remembering Iris Apfel: A Look Back on the Icon’s Vibrant Life

Published March 14, 2024
Published March 14, 2024
Ciaté London

On March 1, 2024, fashion and beauty icon Iris Apfel passed away. At the time of her passing, she was 102. Apfel spent her life as a captivating anomaly, a style maven whose impact transcended traditional confines. Apfel's unapologetically eclectic aesthetic shattered ageist norms, championed individuality, and left an enduring imprint on the landscape of beauty and fashion. BeautyMatter reflects on the highlights of Apfel's life and the sure-to-be lasting impact she created.

Fashion First

As a young girl in Queen's, New York, Iris Apfel likely never expected to become the fashion and beauty icon she is known as today. Born to a shopkeeper father and a mother who owned a fashion boutique, Apfel's life was immersed in clothing and accessories from her primary years, which she affirmed led to her love of accessories, including her instantly recognizable oversized round-framed glasses.

When the Great Depression hit, Apfel learned to sew and create clothes on a budget at her mother's shop. In 2017, Apfel reflected on her childhood days during an interview with ELLE magazine, sharing that her mother's greatest fashion advice was to create a well-cut, well-made, good fabric basic black dress. "I could go to the office in the morning and stay out all day in the same dress, just by changing accessories because they are so transformative. My mother worshiped at the altar of accessories, and I'm an accessory freak, as everybody knows. That, I got from my mother," Apfel recalled.

Leaving the fashion boutique behind yet still within close reach, Apfel went on to study art history at NYU. She later attended the University of Wisconsin's Fine Art School and graduated in 1943. Shortly after, Apfel secured herself a copywriting job at WWD and later went on to cover textiles.

At WWD, Apfel began to be recognized locally for her ability to style out-of-the-box outfits, replacing the classic little black dress with color and flair. "In the '40s, I was probably the first woman to wear jeans," she said in a scene in the 2014 film Iris. "All of a sudden, I had a vision. I said, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if I had … this sounds crazy, but a big gingham turban and very large hoop earrings I could wear with a nice crisp shirt and a pair of jeans."

During her career journey, Iris met like-minded fashionista Carl Apfel, who she went on to marry in 1948. The duo founded a textile manufacturing company, Old World Weavers, which had prestigious clients, including Greta Garbo and Estée Lauder. The pair were known to travel the world together in search of inspiration for their next piece of work and did so until Carl's passing at the age of 100 in 2015.

The Apfel's love was reflected through their business passion and inspiring creations. "I'm a hopeless romantic. My husband used to say I look at a piece of fabric and listen to the threads," Apfel told The Guardian in 2012 when reminiscing on her adventures with Carl. "[Fabric] tells me a story. It sings me a song. I have to get a physical reaction when I buy something. A coup de foudre—a bolt of lightning. It's fun to get knocked out that way!"

Iris's love of fabric was even recognized by Congress, as she worked on multiple interior design restoration projects for nine US presidents, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. The Apfels sold Old World Weaver upon retirement in 1992, and continued to enjoy each other's company (in extravagant outfits, of course).

"I think the worst thing is to be ashamed of age. To try to hide it. To lie about it. To be afraid of it. It's inevitable, so you may as well make peace with it."
By Iris Apfel

An Accidental Icon

Despite her successful career, Apfel became a household name in 2005, thanks to a Met Museum exhibition. The showcase featured 82 items of clothing and over 300 accessories from Apfel's wardrobe, which she had been building for several decades. Prestigious fashion designers, including Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani, attended the show.

"Over the past 40 years, [Apfel] has cultivated a personal style that is both witty and exuberantly idiosyncratic. Her originality is typically revealed in her mixing of high and low fashions Dior haute couture with flea market finds, 19th-century ecclesiastical vestments with Dolce & Gabbana lizard trousers," read text at the beginning of the exhibition. "With remarkable panache and discernment, she combines colors, textures, and patterns without regard to period, provenance, and, ultimately, aesthetic conventions. Paradoxically, her richly layered combinations—even at their most extreme and baroque—project a boldly graphic modernity."

Apfel’s fame again intensified in 2014 when filmmaker Albert Maysles created Iris, a documentary exploring Apfel's creative contributions to fashion. At the age of 97, Apfel signed a modeling contract with IMG Models, landing campaigns with names including eBay, Magnum Beauty, and Kate Spade. These achievements led to Apfel writing a biography, which was launched in 2018, named Accidental Icon, the title she often gave herself when reflecting on her career highlights.

"Just because you get to a certain number doesn't mean you have to roll up into a ball and wait for the grim reaper," reads one of the many "accidentally iconic" sentences written by Apfel during her career. This carefree approach to aging led Apfel to become an internationally loved influencer, especially for those in the older age bracket.

Ageless Allure

Iris Apfel's appeal to older generations stemmed from her embodiment of ageless style and attitude. Apfel shattered stereotypes by showcasing that one's passion for fashion and self-expression knows no age limits. Apfel's fearless approach to dressing, characterized by vibrant colors, bold patterns, and statement accessories, resonated with older individuals who refused to conform to societal expectations of how they should dress as they age. The icon's unapologetic embrace of her aging process served as a powerful message of self-confidence and empowerment for older generations, inspiring them to embrace their uniqueness and live on their own terms.

"I think the worst thing is to be ashamed of age. To try to hide it. To lie about it. To be afraid of it. It's inevitable, so you may as well make peace with it," Apfel once said. "I think the secret is to stay curious, keep learning, and continue to challenge yourself. That's what keeps you young. Age is nothing but a number. It's how you live your life that really matters."

Apfel's refusal to tone down her love for color and style as she aged was also recognized within the beauty industry, leading to several collaborations that perfectly reflected everything the icon stood for.

"Iris' presence and confidence within the beauty industry championed diversity, inclusion, age positivity, and the power of beauty at any age, as well as celebration of beauty at every stage of life."
By Charlotte Knight, CEO, Ciaté London

Blossoming in Beauty

At the age of 93, Apfel's first foray into the beauty industry took place as she partnered with MAC Cosmetics to launch a 20-piece collection. The collaboration featured lipsticks, eye pencils, nail polishes, and eye pigments. Shades of products reflected Apfel's vibrant vision, including Party Parrot, Flamingo, Orielle Orange, and Toco Toucan.

"MAC asked me what colors I liked. I explained that I don't like sheer lipstick—I like heavy and matte. I'm happy with the result; the colors are very clear, bright, and bird-like. For I am the rare bird!" Apfel told Dazed at the time of the collection's launch.

When discussing her advice for women, Apfel went on to say, "Nothing makes a woman look old than a woman trying to look young. Dress appropriately, do your makeup appropriately, and be yourself, and you can look very chic. You can look beautiful at any age."

Apfel's love for authentic beauty was once again reflected through her collaboration with Ciaté London at the age of 101. The collection included eight expressive SKUs, such as nail stickers, eyeshadow palettes, lipsticks, a mirror, and a makeup bag, all decorated with Iris-inspired images, of course, in vibrant hues that reflected the icon's love for an abundance of bright color.

”For the creatives, the routine-lovers, and the daredevils, this collection combines everything I have come to love about beauty over my 100 years," Apfel said when launching the collaboration. "I hope this collection acts as a reminder that to be truly yourself is to be unstoppable."

Regardless of her age, Apfel was heavily involved in the creative process of the collection. Charlotte Knight, CEO of Ciaté London, fondly reflected on the moments she shared with Apfel.

”Everything about the partnership was simply wonderful, from the initial brainstorming sessions from her Palm Beach house to shooting in NYC, where a huge table was filled with just a selection of Iris' vast jewelry trinkets collected over nine decades," Knight told BeautyMatter. "Having the chance to not only direct the shoot along with my team but also to dust off my nail tech skills and apply the coveted Iris Apfel nail wraps to her most elegant fingernails, was wonderful."

Knight, like most, believes that Apfel's influence will remain strong in the beauty industry for several more decades to come. "Iris' legacy will leave a lasting imprint on the beauty industry and continue to inspire the future. Her presence and confidence within the beauty industry championed diversity, inclusion, age positivity, and the power of beauty at any age, as well as celebration of beauty at every stage of life."

At a time when the beauty industry is torn between anti-aging lovers (some scarily as young as ten) and age-positive personalities, Apfel's graceful aging and positive attitude are a testament to going against the norms and embracing self-love. To quote the icon herself, "I don't see anything so wrong with a wrinkle. It's kind of a badge of courage. I'm old enough to have earned every one of them."

Iris Apfel revolutionized the beauty industry by celebrating diversity, individuality, and ageless style, inspiring people worldwide to embrace their uniqueness with confidence. In a realm where conformity often reigns, Apfel's vibrant spirit served as a beacon, guiding us toward a more inclusive and diverse understanding of what it truly means to be beautiful.


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