Having featured in a variety of documentaries that explore the fashion scene in and around New York City, the unique and irrepressible fashionista Iris Apfel now takes centre stage in one of her very own. The final feature from the dearly departed Albert Maysles, who alongside his brother made some of the best exemplars of the genre (Gimme Shelter and Salesman are but a mere tip of the iceberg), Iris (2014) is a heartfelt and enlightening swansong that focuses on one the fashion industry’s, nay the world’s, most distinctive – and distinctively dressed – icons. A beacon of individuality, Apfel wasn’t publicly recognised for her vivacious wardrobe until she was well in her eighties.
In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art approached Iris about sharing her collections in an exhibition to be titled ‘Iris Apfel, Rare Bird of Fashion’. Coming from a background in interior design – a career that saw her and her long-time husband Carl restoring fabrics for museum collections and even the White House for five decades – Apfel now reigns supreme over the fashion world as a self-proclaimed “geriatric starlet” who exudes confidence and preaches fulfilment through clothing. Told from a young age that, though she isn’t and never will be pretty, it doesn’t matter because she had a discerning sense of style, Apfel has become synonymous with a particular brand of seasoned exuberance.
Iris has become as notable for her matchless clothes and exaggerated round glasses as she has for her velvety, robust Queens accent and quick-witted vernacular. Sharing similarities to the Maysles’ fascinating Grey Gardens (1975), about Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric cousins, Albert’s film maintains his observational style as he examines the candid workings of this inventive artist who constructs her own image on a daily basis. This ranges from depicting her days satisfying her unquenchable thirst for shopping at thrift stores, actively seeking out (and haggling for) garments and accessories whose personality she prizes over faceless, generic pieces, to her attending elite social events, for which she enjoys the process of dressing over the actual showing up. Maysles hones in on the methods to her fabulous brand of madness to frequently amusing effect, highlighting how ready she is to shun any form of conventionality in her mode of appearance. Though audience members seeking a more rigorous examination of the fashion industry may be disappointed, Maysles instead focuses on the profound aspects of Apfel’s life and outlooks, composing a finely and simply detailed portrait of a personality built on the foundations of pure creativity which has lasted into her ninth decade.
It’s a ringing endorsement for the vitality of old age when the correct amount of enthusiasm is applied. Apfel ceaselessly contrasts with what she believes to be the homogenisation of contemporary fashion in a world of knock-offs and unoriginality, where everything is devoid of a sense of history and everybody looks the same. Sequences set in her house – a temple enshrined with carefully curated bric-a-brac – show how her impressive life and career feeds into her everyday consciousness, where she is effectively a clotheshorse who wears her memories. More than mere hoarding, this exemplifies how each era has played a part in the formation of her persona, as well as her deep knowledge of the industry she’s so entrenched in. Interspersed throughout the film are stock images and 16mm footage of her and Carl’s European voyages, and ultimately the film is an ode to a relationship based on love, understanding and respect. To Carl, who turned one-hundred during production, Iris is beautiful, bold and full of pizazz, which are sentiments Maysles’ clearly shares for a woman who believes that “It’s better to be happy than to be well dressed,” however much she manages to be both.