Director: Albert Maysles
Dries Van Noten
Runtime: 75 mins.
Australian release date: 13 August 2015
‘If you hold on to anything long enough, it comes back into fashion,” says Iris Apfel.
The New York fashion doyenne’s career is brought to the silver screen by the legendary film-maker Albert Maysles in Iris, his last documentary (he died in March this year).
Maysles - who with his brother David, created Direct Cinema, where the idea was to let the script develop as you filmed - has left us with a beautifully poignant portrayal of a woman with a unique sense of style and whose influence in the world of fashion goes beyond the haute-couture houses. Apfel combines expensive designs with pieces found in flea markets and outfits re-designed from other sources, such as church vestments, which are all topped off with a layered display of jewellery - the bigger the better. And it all works!
Born in Queens, New York, in 1921, Iris grew up with parents who owned a fashion boutique. She used to help her mother style store windows (she says her mother “worshipped at the altar of the accessory”) and studied fine arts at New York City University before becoming an apprentice to interior designer Elinor Johnson. Iris married the advertising executive Carl Apfel in 1945 and they established Old World Weavers, a textile business which restored the fabrics of most major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the White House between 1948 and 1992. Maysles’ camera captures the couple’s obvious devotion to each other even though we meet them when they are both in their nineties; their mutual affection is absolutely touching.
There are a number of interviews with designers such as Naeem Khan, Alexis Bittar, Duro Olowu and Dries van Noten, who were all inspired by Iris’s ‘look,’ but it is the candid chat with fashion photographer Bruce Weber which is the most intimate. He used Iris as his preferred model for a number of advertising campaigns, although she was never considered a great beauty. In 2005, she was approached by Harold Koda, the Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to show her collection. The show, ‘Iris Apfel, Rare Bird Of Fashion’ became one of the museum’s most popular exhibitions, largely through word of mouth, and Iris became a self-described “geriatric starlet” at the tender age of 87! It made her instantly recognisable after it toured to a number of museums throughout the USA.
Iris is a wonderful documentary for many reasons. Lovers of fashion and individual taste will revel in the colour and movement on screen. As the camera winds its way through Iris’s massive clothes’ collection stored in various locations and takes in the fun, eccentric belongings the couple cherish, we are privy to a world that is totally unique. For example, stuffed toys and a Christmas train, set up in their Florida apartment for most of the year, are simply delightful. Iris is not afraid to express how she feels about ageing and maintains that if you find what it is you want to do in life, life is a lot more fun.
There is great depth to her elegance and dignity and she knows how to make those around her feel comfortable. There is a telling scene when she looks down the barrel of the camera and asks the crew if they would like to have some of the refreshments on offer at a meeting she is attending. This film is a delight and an inspiration for all who want to enjoy some time in the company of a woman who is not only a ‘Rare Bird of Fashion’ but a rare human being as well.