Like the old ad used to say, “What Becomes A Legend Most?” Today’s answer to that is the sheer will, determination and abundant talent like fashion legend Iris Apfel possesses. It’s landed her as a visting professor with the School of Human Ecology, Textiles and Apparel at the University of Texas at Austin and recently former Texas Secretary of State Geoff Connor caught up with her in Manhattan to glean her secrets of success.
There are people who excel in their field or profession, and there are also people who sparkle across a range of activities and endeavors. Style icon and nonagenarian Iris Apfel does both, dazzling the international fashion world, and managing media staying power for decades.
Let’s face it, Iris Apfel shows no signs of slowing down. A naturally effusive woman, she radiates creative energy and keeps a schedule that would exhaust even your average workaholic. She makes no attempt to hide her actual age of a youthful 90, instead wearing it like a badge of honor to further amplify the extraordinary accomplishments she continues to make, which are plenty.
Apfel has her own line of clothing on the Home Shopping Network and has been the face of MAC cosmetics. She has been a fashion and design presence for decades in New York, has been in countless television and magazine articles and is widely regarded as one of the most influential forces in American fashion. Iris and her husband, Carl, established Old World Weavers in 1954 to produce exquisite, high-quality textiles based on historical patterns. Internationally known, their textiles have been installed in the leading homes of the world, including the White House. For Apfel, the world of creative beauty is not just for the professional life, since her own home on Park Avenue has been featured in Architectural Digest with its sumptuous rooms lushly filled with layers of carefully coordinated decorative arts. In Eric Boman’s book on her, Rare Bird of Fashion, her pristine point of view toward life is highlighted. She believes that a sense of style is fundamental human nature, and that how one looks and projects outwardly is very important.
A worldly sense of what’s important and what values transcend time is perhaps her most valuable asset. She has stated that fashion can be frippery or it can be a serious social study, because fashion mirrors a society including its politics and basic values. Indeed, this has been true through all of history. Iris has also noted the importance of fashion trends being true to the market served, so that when a youth culture dominates a new fashion line there is the risk of alienating the market segment with the most money.
“Evening gowns should have sleeves that flatter most women”, said Iris as an example, “if you pay $10,000 for an gown, you deserve to have sleeves!” Unfortunately for many, buyers are not buying for the older consumer, so designers stop producing designs and the cycle continues. “The trend with men’s clothes is no different,” Iris observes.
Everyone knows the impact of globalization these days on the world economy and what it produces, whether it is designer clothes, furniture, jewelry, cookware or gadgets. Apfel’s vantage point from years of observing these changes is telling. “I used to be able to go into any restaurant in the world and guess where people probably came from based on their attire, but now you can’t tell,” she cried, “because everyone dresses the same.” She notes that even in places like China where fashion was an unknown concept thirty years ago, you now have not only consumer demand, but also Chinese designers turning out product not only for the domestic, but for the international market.
For Iris Apfel, applying her experience, common sense and direct approach to even the hot button issues of the day is part of her secret of success. In an age when many designers are afraid to incorporate furs into their designs, Iris sees the issue as phony, noting that “anyone who eats meat or wears leather cannot be heard to complain about the use of fur in fashion. “ She points out that “some animals are bred for fur, like in a mink farm, just as some chickens, pigs or cattle are bred specifically for consumption”. Iris personally is fond of the use of Mongolian lamb products believing that “if the meat can feed a domestic market and the wool can be used in international fashion, then everyone should be satisfied”.
Athough Apfel is not a Texan, she should have been and could easily pass muster with any Lone Star membership review committee. Her work ethic, generosity, professionalism and genuine kindness are qualities that Texans admire. Beyond that, she has lent her name and time as a visiting professor with the School of Human Ecology, Textiles and Apparel at the University of Texas. The story of how that came to be is an amazing Texas bragging right, but the sum of it is that Sue Meller, a Texas Ex and manager of the Headliners Club, connected with Apfel and facilitated her introduction to UT, and specifically to Nancy Prideaux, The University’s Textiles and Apparel professor. The result was magic for everyone. “Iris Apfel has been a gem for our school – I tell the students that what they learn from her is priceless and cannot be replicated in our classrooms,” says Prideaux.
UT and its students have the opportunity to learn at the feet of Apfel, one of the great names of American design, and she in turn had the opportunity that only a woman of great character could appreciate – to be able to help young minds learn the ropes of fashion and design and find the path best suited for them. Or, even to find that the field is not for them. “You have to work hard and be prepared,” states Iris. “We don’t exist in a red carpet bubble.”
For the well-dressed set or the design aficionado, Iris Apfel remains a symbol of brilliant accomplishment and astute creativity. But, for anyone also appreciative of character and the enduring qualities of sheer talent and hard work, Iris is a lasting inspiration and a relevant model for all ages,