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Iris Apfel
Iris Apfel: big round eyeglasses (she and her late husband Carl in matching glasses were known as “the owls”); perfect boyish haircut, striking in silver; tall and elegant figure in blue jeans, the same size 6 as she was at twenty. That’s become now a brand, with fashion and decorative arts, regularly televised on home shopping network and the like. Iris will be a hundred years old, August next year.
Above: Photo by Bruce Weber
Photo: Two fashionable people about town - Franklin and Iris
She and her husband Carl were already famous years ago as the founder owners of Old World Weavers (now part of Stark Carpets). If your decorator was Sister Parrish or Albert Hadley, and if you had the sofa re-done, you used Old World Weaver’s fabrics. And ordered an extra batch to re-do the piece in case someone spilled wine on it. There was nothing finer ever assembled in the fabric world than their products. The Apfel’s literally combed the world seeking out rare, and delightful, selections, and commissioning items from artisans, often in the remotest of places. It was on these travels, and with the money they earned, that Iris indulged what became her true passion.

The Apfel’s, who clearly had a loving and dedicated marriage, had no children. Collecting clothes, the best of everything, and never throwing anything out, was (in my mind) Iris’s surrogate for family.  Photo: An Old World Weavers catalog
The Apfel’s had not one, but two seven-room Park Avenue apartments (one inherited from her mother) and they were absolutely filled with her clothes. Every room but two were essentially closets. They maintained a bedroom and a living room, and seemingly nothing else. The living room actually was quite spectacular and we re-created it in our exhibition at the Nassau County Museum of Art, 2004, “Iris Apfel, Rare Bird of Fashion.”
This collection was already quite well known. In fact everyone in the fashion world was aware of it. Iris and Carl made an unforgettable appearance, and they attended every party and gala, always being photographed by the press. Iris’s outfits were unsurpassed for their creativity and originality. She was a great patron of the contemporary designer Ralph Rucci, but apart from that, almost everything she wore was vintage. As I said, the best of everything. She bought her clothes from the most important designers, European and American, from throughout her lifetime, and accessorized them with the most amazing, and always over scaled, jewelry. Precious stones were of no interest. It was the originality and compelling design of the object, that captured her attention. And with her height, and flawless carriage, she could handle them. Essentially, Iris favored wearing sculptures. Incidentally, Iris was not in favor of spending big money for any of this. She had a keen eye for a sale and a good bargain. Lucky were those who visited Nassau’s gift shop during the run of the show where a few of her surplus baubles were sold. Today, you can buy the copies. Photos: Apfel's jewelry and outfits on display at the Nassau County Museum of Art.
Her show at the Met, the brainchild of curator Harold Koda, was the first they had every done at the Costume Institute, not of a designer, but of a collector. It proved to be the most popular in a long time. Of course, it would, because here the viewers had a chance to see something vetted over many years by someone with a great eye, and it was already a proven winner from all the PR the owner had garnered by appearing in the clothes displayed. The Norton Gallery in W. Palm Beach took the show following, and Roslyn was lucky enough to be number three. (Like so many things at the museum, we owed it to well known fashion personality and major manufacturer, Arthur Levine who really secured the connection for us. JoAnn Olian, Costume curator emeritus from the Museum of the City of New York also played a big role in helping us put it together. ) Following Nassau, it went to the Peabody Essex, which has a wonderful museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and it is within this institution that much of her collection will permanently reside.
Photo: Installation shot of one of the galleries of the Nassau County Museum of Art's exhibition of Iris Apfel's collection.
Executive Director Connie Schwartz and myself as Chief Curator, along with JoAnn Olian as Curator, created the "Rare Bird of Fashion" exhibition in 2008, and as always we had great back-up from Deputy Director Fernanda Bennett, but actually Debbie Wells did a lot of the show with us, and very much helped keep Iris Apfel happy. As it turned out, the demands of instantly producing Iris’s original concept for her wall text and descriptive labels was unprecedented, but Debbie had the professional graphic design skills to successfully execute the vision.

This was necessarily the case since our exhibition was not a re-do of the Met or Norton but rather an entirely original venture adapted to the space of the museum (a historic Long island country house with old school woodwork and interiors). Because of that circumstance, whatever had been done previously could not be adapted and we had to do it from scratch, so it was a monumental undertaking, but undoubtedly one of the most exciting exhibitions ever done at the museum.

Not only was our show a sensation, but the experience of working with Iris was unforgettable. We composed the show as a series of vignettes, each room a mise-en-scene, meaning a theatrical set. Each gallery had a theme: fashion runway, Moroccan souk (street bazaar); safari; Eskimos in the Arctic; Iris’s living room, and so on. The idea, of course, was to reflect the seasons, along with her travels, creating the atmosphere of the regions from which the items in the collection were sourced. Photos: Various shots of the installations at the Nassau County Museum of Art.
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Incidentally, shortly after Iris’s movie came out, I ran into her on the street in Soho and she told me that I had to see the movie immediately, telling me “you’re in it.” Irresistible promotion, so Iris!
Of course I did see it, and unless my version was cut, I definitely wasn’t in it. However, the Nassau show indeed was portrayed, which is, I guess what she meant. I highly recommend it!
- Franklin Hill Perrell
CLICK HERE for the movie trailer

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