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Iris Apfel: Fashion Icon for the Ages

Learn about fashion designer Iris Apfel and her incredible legacy. Seniorly celebrates this 90 year old fashion icon and all her accomplishments.

By Seniorly Editor · Updated Sep 17, 2021

At 99 years old, Iris Apfel isn’t just changing the way the world looks at fashion, she’s changing the way we view aging. The self-labeled “geriatric starlet” doesn’t let her age get in the way of anything. In fact, she considers “lasting this long” her greatest achievement in life. She’s not just surviving in what some would call her golden years, she’s thriving.

Growing up in Queens, New York, Iris studied art history at New York University and went on to attend the University of Wisconsin’s art school. After spending time working for interior designer Elinor Johnson and Women’s Wear Daily, she got married to Carl Apfel in 1948, and the two went on to launch Old World Weavers, a textile firm that was massively successful. In fact, the couple was tapped by nine different U.S. First Ladies for interior design projects at the White House.

Although she’s been an incredibly successful businesswoman, she’s perhaps best known for becoming an accidental fashion icon, stumbling into the limelight later in life. When she was 84 years old, an entire exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was dedicated to her personal jewelry and apparel collection, titled Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel. It was this exhibit that showed off her eclectic style to the world, highlighting the way she pairs together oversized glasses, costume jewelry, and layers of bright colors for a unique look that’s all her own.  

Iris, a documentary on her life by the late Albert Maysles, was released in 2014, and recently she published a book, Accidental Icon, that features photos of Apfel — shots of her at work, images of her and her husband Carl, and shots that show off her couture best through the years. Along with her book, a one-of-a-kind Barbie was released, and in the fall of 2018 two “Styled By Iris Apfel” Barbies will be released for purchase from Mattel.

Although Apfel notes that her style has never changed, it’s only been within the past couple of decades that the fashion world has embraced her eclectic look. Perhaps it’s true that her age gives her greater authority and resonance. She notes, “You’re supposed to fade away,” when it comes to having a fashion life later in life, but she refuses to be bullied out of fashion or ignored. Interestingly enough, her first big job in beauty and fashion didn’t come until she was 90 when she developed a limited-edition collection for MAC cosmetics in the winter of 2011. She went on to debut her own line, “Rara Avis,” of colorful, large jewelry on the Home Shopping Network that same year.

Yes, Iris Apfel is indeed a fashion icon for the ages, but even more importantly, she’s a beautiful example of how full and satisfying life can be for aging adults. She’s never tried to use elaborate makeup or plastic surgery to look younger. You’ll see her fears, sorrows, joys, and mortality written on the lines of her face. And she admits, “Getting’ old ain’t for sissies…You may not like getting older, but…you’re here. Embrace it.”

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