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Iris Apfel Was a Peacock Among the Swans

Froma Harrop on

Iris Apfel was that 102-year-old lady with those big round glasses and that big red smile. She'd wear plastic bangles found on street carts with vintage couturier jackets and pile on clouds of feathers. Her socks might be blue, her pants perforated red leather and her handbag made of tin.

And it all seemed to work for her. Fresh-faced "influencers" on YouTube hailed her fashion sense as they urged followers to invest in capsule wardrobes built around a navy blazer.

Iris injected color into the gray streets dominated by young hipsters in head-to-toe black. She showed zero interest in "quiet luxury," whose bloodless symphony of colors range from beige to off-white. As for "Normcore," what's that?

The "geriatric starlet" immortalized in Albert Maysles' 2014 documentary, "Iris," was far more than a nonconformist, a spectacle many passersby might dismiss as a kooky old lady. She used her increasingly frail frame as a canvas for her art.

Iris' philosophy of life is as memorable as her outfits given tribute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Le Bon Marche Rive Gauche department store in Paris.

"There's so much sameness. Everything is homogenized," she complains in a voice still living in Queens. "I hate it."

 

For all her success as a fashion icon, Iris makes clear that there are other things -- more important things -- than fashion. When a museum employee asks whether she lost sleep deciding which personal treasures to donate, she answered, "Oh, God, no. I have more important things to keep me up at night." They undoubtedly included the health of her beloved husband Carl, seen in a wheelchair. He died a few years later at the age of 100.

Some obituaries inaccurately identify Iris as "a New York society matron." Other than a strong care about dressing, she had little in common with Babe Paley, Slim Keith or the other "swans" portrayed in the Fox series "Feud: Capote vs. the Swans."

The "swans" were superbly put together -- in Babe's case, also beautiful and a tribute to grooming. But their life objectives were to marry rich and party in designer luxury alongside others like themselves.

Iris was one of the people. "Style has nothing to do with how much you spend on your clothes," she told an interviewer. The most stylish people she ever saw were in Naples right after World War II. They were "practically in tatters," she recalled, but "threw themselves together and carried themselves" with pride. "They really looked like a squillion dollars."

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