Photo credit Studio Cockatoo at East End Prints

Photo credit Studio Cockatoo at East End Prints


In the first of our Inspirational Women series, we look at the style legend that is Iris Apfel.

The phone never stops ringing in Iris’s house. At 93 she is more in demand than ever as a model with a worldwide fan-base, she is a master of style; regularly darting about Europe and the U.S. or at her home in Palm beach one minute and her New York apartment the next. It's hard to keep track. Iris refers to herself as a 'geriatric starlet' and with the title comes a glimpse of her irreverent wit. She may be mature in years but she takes no prisoners. Her forthright manner and endless one-liners are mere embellishments to a character who is as colourful on the inside as she is outside. 

That signature look, the thickly framed black round glasses, arms and neck weighted down in swathes of necklaces and bangles, have made her a fashion icon. A palette of brights and a mix of textures are layered to create the desired effect of the day.  Fashion stardom found Iris rather late, ten years into her retirement in fact, but her love of accessories, texture and colour started much earlier. She admits that not being pretty is what gave her the inspiration to work on having substance and perhaps it was also the impetus for her iconic look. A sinus problem in her youth rendered her overweight, and so began the endless trips around shops dragged by her frustrated mother who 'just wanted something nice to fit her.' 

It was on one such trip, as a twelve-year-old that Iris discovered an Aladdin’s cave of a thrift store in a New York basement, a magpie's heaven. She saw an old brooch that she just had to have, saved the money and haggled her first deal. It was the beginning of a love affair, not only with clothes but for the art of the barter. Iris had a particular love for the antique shops of Greenwich Village; soon she discovered that she had a talent and a passion for finding rare pieces, whether for interiors or adornment. To this day you'll see her rummaging through those same markets, making the deal.

1948 was a significant year. Placed at Women's Wear Daily Iris met the person who would remain by her side for the subsequent 67 years, her husband Carl. With Iris next to him, Carl would slowly grow to become a style icon in his own right. But long before they were fashion royalty they developed their company the Old World Weavers specialising in restoration furnishings. Their stint at the White house saw them at the service of nine presidents no less. Iris already had a name for herself in interior design-circles, and as she was regularly attending high society parties, she began to collect pieces of artisanal clothes in which to attend them.

This eclectic wardrobe led to another invitation in 2005 from Harold Koda, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He asked her to curate a show based on her style and wardrobe. The show was the first to be created by someone other than a designer and her talent for combining pieces to look like one sculptural piece astonished the curator and audience alike, they were works of art like no other.

Iris doesn’t dress to impress but rather to make a statement of her own against what she calls the dull and homogenised. Her impression of downtown style is that it isn’t style at all; it’s a uniform.

The Met's fateful call changed Iris’s life; since then it has not stood still. Recently featuring in campaigns for Alexis Bitter and Kate Spade. Despite two hip ops, (one needed after a trip on a designer dress at a fashion shoot), she's so busy it’s hard to track her from one moment to the next. Her fan-base is as diverse as her wardrobe and ranges from the gay community to the older generation whom she concedes are the only ones with the money to purchase these crazily priced designer items. And like her contemporaries, she does buy designer pieces, but she's equally as content to find an original bargain in the thrift stores.

Iris doesn't dress to impress but rather to make a statement of her own against what she calls the dull and homogenised. Her impression of downtown style is that it isn't style at all; it's a uniform. She wears her colour, pattern and texture as a declaration of originality, it's the garb of the free thinker. Along with the likes of the master himself Dries Van Noten, Iris has a talent for pattern clash in her autobiography Dries states, “she has the ability to combine ugly, nice, cheap and chic simultaneously and make it work”.

In 2013 she was listed as one the fiftiy best-dressed over 50s by the Guardian newspaper.  Her extensive collection lines her home, finds from across the decades. But as much as she likes the thrill of the find she regularly gives away pieces to museums. Not bound by sentimentality; instead, she looks upon them as items that are on loan to her. And contrary to the accolades and popular belief, fashion is not number one. Iris's priorities in latter years have been her husband and her health, "the real things that matter." Carl sadly passed away in 2015, but while he was by her side, he revelled in the eccentric outfits presented to him. From a paint-splattered jacket to a gold studded cap, she styled him up and doted on him all at once. With him, her straight-talking took on a gentler tone. They had 67 glorious years, and they held hands all the way.

What makes Iris so unique is that she appeals to everyone young or old, from all walks of life.

What makes Iris so unique is that she appeals to everyone young or old, from all walks of life, her tireless enthusiasm for all things fashion is infectious and a reflection of her lust for life. Along with her quick-witted humour, she is charming, informative and accessible and although she gets tired, she admits that the media fascination has been a godsend. After retirement, life was rather too quiet for her liking. It’s evident that she thrives from the constant flux from one shoot to the next with her incredible, unstoppable energy. She is a beacon of hope; demonstrating to us that as we get older, we don’t have to give up the fashion ghost.

She is a beacon of hope, demonstrating to us that as we get older, we don’t have to give up the fashion ghost.

Part of Iris's style is in her unwavering decision to ignore what anyone thinks. But if you happen to see her in one of those thrift stores in the Village, and you are in the look du jour, don't expect her give you a critique. While she has strong opinions on what constitutes style, she's not inclined to criticise others. She merely admits, “well, as long as people are happy, its more important to be happy than well dressed”. Luckily it seems for Iris, she is both!

If you love the graphic of Iris (by Studio Cockatoo) as much as we do, get your copy here from East End Prints.

Studio Cockatoo is small design space nestled deep in the sunshine coast hinterland, Australia where we husband and wife team Luke and Kate Bordessa are busy creating beautiful geometric and modern art to adorn your walls. All of our designs are created in-house, and our range is continually growing and evolving. Trained in graphic design and both from creative backgrounds, Studio Cockatoo was born. See more at

Based in London's creative hub of East London, East End Prints houses a carefully curated collection of graphic art. From film inspired posters, abstract art, London, kids to vintage type. 
Working since 2010 with new and emerging artists locally and across the UK and producing high quality, affordable graphic art prints and limited editions.