Fashion icon Iris Apfel’s surprising connection to Salem

At 101 this year, Iris Apfel always dresses new – or dozens.

With her signature oversized glasses, penchant for color, heavy and bold layers of jewelry, and bold style, you know Iris Apfel even if you’ve never read Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, or Vanity Fair.

“Fashion is a perfect way to express yourself. I think people should take advantage of it and don’t want to all look the same,” Apfel told me in a phone interview.

Fashion, for Apfel, is a personal expression.

“I don’t like trends,” says Apfel. “I don’t know why young people want to look like they belong to some kind of tribe.”

Apfel has always been a tribe.

That’s why she has 2.1 million Instagram followers who adore her confident and unique Iris fashion choices. (His biography: “More is more and less is boring.”)

That’s why, in 2005, at age 84, she became the first non-creative living person to exhibit clothing and accessories at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Why she was the subject of a 2015 documentary, signed with IMG as a model at 97, has an eyewear line, been transformed into a Barbie doll and became the face of Magnum ice cream bars.

Apfel became an “accidental icon” simply by being Apfel.

This icon also has a unique relationship with Massachusetts.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem houses a permanent collection, some 1,000 pieces worn by the fashion icon and her late husband Carl, who died in 2015 at the age of 100.

Inside PEM’s Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery, visitors can view 16 complete sets – 14 from Iris and two from Carl. The sets rotate regularly.

And yes, people migrate to the Salem Museum just to see it. One couple even took their wedding photos in the gallery, says Petra Slinkard, director of curatorial affairs at PEM and curator of fashion and textiles.

So how did the connection come about?

“‘The Rare Bird of Fashion’ exhibit debuted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, then went to various institutions, ending its tour at the EMP in 2009,” says Slinkard.

“Iris really enjoyed the museum. There was a fearless creativity that drew her to the museum,” Slinkard says. “It was kismet.”

(“The museum is a wonderful place,” Apfel tells me. “It’s very avant-garde.”)

Since that exposure, Apfel has donated personal clothing annually to PEM, Slinkard said, but not in recent years due to the pandemic.

Galerie Carl and Iris Apfel in the Mode et Design gallery of the PEM in 2021 — in a state of celebration for its 100th anniversary. (Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum)

From Alexander McQueen to flea market finds, PEM’s Apfel collection offers an “eclectic and democratic range of materials,” says Slinkard. “Some pieces are truly haute couture. She has beautiful pieces – Lanvins that belonged to her mother, sumptuous exaggerated furs, silks and velvets. Then, she has unique pieces that the designers have made with H&M. That’s what I appreciate the most about her aesthetic – her eye.

“It’s that bravery, that boldness, that comfort in your own skin,” she adds. “Then there’s a sense of whimsy that you don’t see much from other fashion icons.”

Born Iris Barrel in Queens in 1921, she worked as a “copycat” at the Women’s Wear Daily during World War II. She married Carl Apfel in 1948 and the couple founded Old World Weavers, an international textile manufacturing company. Clients included Greta Garbo, Estée Lauder, Montgomery Clift, Joan Rivers – and the White House.

For Apfel’s 100th anniversary last September, PEM announced the first Iris Apfel Award. Apfel chose Tommy Hilfiger as the first recipient. Due to COVID, this celebration is suspended indefinitely.

I had the chance to interview the fashion icon. Here are more of his pearls of wisdom (and dry jokes).

Lauren Daley: Why did you award Tommy Hilfiger the first Iris Apfel Award?

Iris Apfel: I didn’t just want to give an award to a budding young designer and the next year he goes out of business. I wanted to elevate the idea that just being a designer isn’t enough – you have to have business acumen and down to earth, have stamina. You can be the greatest designer in the world, and if you don’t know how to run a business, what’s the point? So I think Tommy was a perfect choice.

What intrigued you about fashion when you were a kid?

I always liked that, my mother always seemed wonderful. I just like people to look good.

Were your parents still dressed?

Well, at the good times. They didn’t ride like Astor’s pet horse. But my mother has always been very chic.

And fashion back then was very creative, it was fun. It gave people the opportunity to express themselves – both the designer and the consumer. You could express originality. Most good designers each had their own look. And now everything is out of order – there is no fad. Everything is messy.

What styles caught your eye as a kid?

They all caught my eye. I didn’t like them all personally, but they all caught my eye. I couldn’t wait for Vogue and Harper to come out to see what was new. There was excitement. It wasn’t just the same old, the same old. Now, if you walk down a shopping street, everything looks the same; it’s just a question of quality and price. I oppose it. I like individuality. I love creativity. It’s all gone. I don’t know where he went, but he left. And now with COVID, people are walking around looking like they’re going to the gym.


Its good. I mean, people should be comfortable, but there’s a time and a place for everything.

What do you think about when you get dressed in the morning?

It depends on the day.

A typical day.

I don’t have a typical day. This is what is interesting in my life. It’s always different. I do a lot of different projects. I try not to repeat. I like to keep everything fresh.

Views of the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery at the Peabody Essex Museum with mannequins in festive condition for Apfel's 100th birthday in 2021. (Courtesy P. Slinkard)
Views of the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery at the Peabody Essex Museum with mannequins in festive condition for Apfel’s 100th birthday in 2021. (Courtesy P. Slinkard)

[laughs] OK. So what is your process when choosing what to wear?

My life is not just about getting dressed. It depends. If I work, I don’t like to dress up. I’ll be in tights or jeans, a big sloppy shirt. When I go out, it’s a different story. It depends where I’m going. And now it’s very difficult to get dressed because nobody does it. If you dress up, you look like a monster.

[laughs] So what was your favorite fashion era?

I didn’t have a favorite era. Of course, the 70s and 80s were the glory days. I guess from the 50s to the early 90s things were going pretty well on 7th Avenue. And then everything started to fall apart. And, of course, with COVID, it was just the ring of death.

You are known for trendy pieces, color. What might catch your eye when looking for jewelry?

It’s hard to say. It has to be the color, the design. My preference, of course, is big and bold. I appreciate smaller, more delicate pieces, but they’re not for me personally. Big and bold suits me. I appreciate. For me, jewelry says something about how I feel that day. By changing your jewels – if you have a simple classic black dress, for example – you have five different jewels with different looks, you can change the look and the type of outfit you wear. You could go from the office in the morning to a cocktail party.

You started working at Women’s Wear Daily. How was it?

I was a copycat. It was the lowest form of employment you could get.

At that time, they had no electronics – there were only pneumatic tubes in the three-story building. Publishers were constantly sending articles from place to place and someone had to haul them back and forth. I was walking up and down stairs, up and down stairs, up and down stairs for the magnificent sum of $15 a week. It was a salary back then.

It was when?

Right out of school, it must have been 1943. I was there for about six months, then I realized I wasn’t going anywhere because all the editors were middle-aged women – too young to die and too old to go into pregnancy.

So I thought I’d better scadoodle. That’s what I did. Then I started trying all kinds of things. I had a wonderful job with Robert Goodman, he was the best menswear editor in the country at the time, he worked for Esquire and all those magazines. I was his girlfriend on Friday.

You and Carl ran Old World Weavers together from 1950 to 1992. How did you meet your husband?

Oh it’s a long story. I met him the first time I went on a vacation that I could pay for myself. He knew the girlfriend I was with, but he was in love with a lady who was on Lake George and whose father had a nice boat. So they were on the boat every day. And I had a boyfriend who came to visit me. We didn’t meet until we got back to New York. It’s a crazy long story. Anyway, we’ve been married for 68 years.

You two have worked in the White House with nine presidents. What were the highlights?

I don’t know if there was a particular high point – it was all very uplifting and inspiring. I loved working with Ms. Nixon. She was wonderful. She was very interested in doing the house, the most interested of all the first ladies. We had a great career with Old World Weavers; we had all kinds of projects. [Then in 2005] I had my show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it put me on the map.

You’ve been the subject of a movie, you’ve had a Barbie doll made in your image, are you surprised at how famous you’ve become?

Very surprised. It’s something I didn’t expect.

Why do you think people are so drawn to you?

You have to ask them. I try to be a steady force with a bit of humor and not a flake. Maybe it’s because they see that I work hard and accomplish a lot.

What events or moments do they remember as highlights?

I don’t look back. I live in the present. The past is the past and it’s over. I don’t dwell on it. And I don’t do too much with the future because we don’t know if we will have one. So I learned to live in the present.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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