Her Fearless Fashion Brought Her Fame – at 85!

Iris Apfel

When Iris was 11 years old, she would explore Manhattan, developing a particular liking for Greenwich Village. In those days – it was 1932 – not only could one travel all around the city for five cents, it was safe for an 11-year-old girl to explore on her own – even if it was not the norm. Iris was the only child of a Jewish couple – Samuel Barrel, who owned a glass company and his wife, Sadye, who operated a fashion boutique.

During her adventures, Iris discovered one particular shop in the Village, owned by a man who wore a monocle and whose clothes were frayed. Yet he always managed to look sharp by wearing a boutonniere on his jacket and spats on his shoes. His store was filled with cheap baubles and knickknacks, but one item in particular caught her imagination – a green brooch – which Iris determined that she had to have. Over time, she saved the grand total of sixty-five cents and made the purchase.

Her love of such items came from her fashion savvy mother, who “worshiped at the altar of accessories’. Her knack for finding unique incredible items at bargain prices was a trait Iris developed on her own.

Iris would study art history at New York University and continue her art studies at the University of Wisconsin. After school, Iris had several jobs – she worked briefly for Women’s Wear Daily, for an interior designer, and later an assistant to an illustrator. In 1948, she met Carl Apfel. The two fell madly in love, married and worked together as interior designers. Iris, with her unique sense for fashion, was determined to find a particular fabric pattern for a client. Unable to do so, she engaged a weaver to custom make the material.

That led to her and Carl partnering with the weaver and opening their own business – Old World Weavers. Carl and Iris were a perfect match as partners in marriage, in business – in life. Combining their determination with their distinctive sense of style and design led to great success for their company. In fact, the two were contracted to work for eight different U.S. Presidents in redecorating the White House upon their election. Their business was so successful that were approached by Stark Carpet who made them an offer they ‘couldn’t refuse’.

So, at the age of 83 – Carl was 89 – Iris retired. Throughout the course of owning Old World Weavers, Iris and Carl traveled extensively in pursuit of unique fabrics, furniture and accent pieces to use in their interior design work. Iris never lost her passion for unique, interesting and colorful accessories and clothing. Through the decades she acquired enough couture costume jewelry and apparel to fill a museum – and that’s exactly what happened.

In 2005, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had an unexpected cancellation of a show. The museum was faced with limited time but an absolute need to present a show. Iris, with her penchant for “over-the-top” fashion and accessories was known throughout the art and interior design industry. The museum’s curator had a bold, yet risky, idea – feature Iris’ fashion collection as art. She was given full artistic control to dress a collection of mannequins in her outfits.

Without a sponsor and virtually zero marketing budget, the show was, indeed, a risk. Immediately, however, word spread about the show, its unique and eye-catching fashion and the fashionista behind it all. Iris, at the age of 85, became the darling of the fashion world. Her fame spread internationally.  Suddenly, the woman who had followed her own path in fashion (and in life) for over eight decades was fully appreciated for her sense of style – her sense of self. Iris had become a true fashion icon. Things like this only happen in one of two ways – from the mind of a script writer or as the result of a person who is a fearless brand. Iris Apfel is just that – a fearless brand.

Fearless Brands appeal to others because they are true to themselves.

Iris Apfel refers to herself as the world’s oldest living teenager – a “geriatric starlet”. The show that launched her current career was the first ever to feature a single female. That exhibit was replicated in Miami, Washington D.C., Europe and Baltimore. Iris didn’t set out to find fame, especially as it relates to her own sense of style – her own persona.  Fame found her because of her style.

Frieda Loehmann, founder of the off-price stores which bear her name once told Iris – “You’ll never be pretty, but better, you have style.” Well, Iris does have style, and it’s a style all her own. She wears multiple bracelets and necklaces and layers of clothing – for her, more is more! She doesn’t worry about fashion or her education. Rather, she relies on her gut – she knows what she likes when she sees it. Iris’ iconic over-sized round glasses – cartoonish by themselves – are the ideal finishing touch for her look.  

Iris loves the search for the next treasure, the discovery and the price haggling. She proudly states that – “Everything I own I go out and find”. It’s at those times that she says she feels like she’s 19 1/2 years-old. 

While Iris will be 96-years-old at the end of the month (August 29, 2017), her style is defined almost as much by her pulse, her energy, and her zest for living as it is by her ensembles. She lights up every room as she enters. Everybody who is ‘somebody’ in the fashion world is thrilled to meet Iris. What is more noteworthy is the attention she pays to the working-class people that she encounters – doormen, drivers, waitstaff. 

She was married to Carl for 67 years before he died on August 1, 2015 – one month shy of his 101st birthday. She attributes their successful marriage to having a sense of humor and giving each other space. That advice alone is powerful for most people. However, there’s so much more to learn from this fearless brand – Iris Apfel.

Embrace yourself, embrace your style – Iris did just that for 85 years before being recognized for her unique style. She didn’t follow any norms nor did she seek fame and attention. When it came to style and fashion, Iris Apfel only worried about pleasing Iris Apfel. To quote Apfel – ” When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else.” Be yourself. Embrace your style. That is the epitome of branding and is the most freeing thing a person can do for themselves. 

Maintain a sense of wonder – A secret to the youthful spirit and energy that defines Iris Apfel is her perpetual curiosity. Speaking of her marriage to Carl she says – “We just like to have fun. And I think there’s a difference between being childish and keeping a quality that’s childlike. I’m very grown up in a lot of ways, but I think that’s so sad – it’s good to maintain a sense of wonder.” Put another way Apfel says – “If you’re not interested, you’re not interesting.”

Don’t live a gray life – “Color can raise the dead” says Iris Apfel. She means that not just literally, but figuratively as well. Her fashion style explodes in colors. Her life explodes with colorful adventures. Her belief is that if you’re going to live a gray life, you might as well just jump in the box (coffin) and close the lid because you’re not living.” Add color to your life – if not your wardrobe, your actions.

Iris Apfel, unbeknownst to herself, knows and preaches the key to creating a successful personal brand when she talks about style vs. fashion. “Fashion you can buy – style you possess!” Iris Apfel is a unique gem of a person. Her secret isn’t a secret – merely be yourself, keep a childlike curiosity and live in color. If you can do those things, you too will be a fearless brand. 




Friday's Fearless Brand Personal Branding

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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