IrisAugust 15, 2015
Iris Apfel is one human being who doesn’t want to be like everybody else. At the age of 93 she is the most stylish woman in New York. Yet it is an idea of style that has nothing to do with understated elegance, or even beauty, but is more like a full-blown assault on the idea of good taste.
This is the penultimate documentary by the legendary Albert Maysles, who died in March. His final feature, In Transit, is yet to be released.
Maysles and his brother, David, who died in 1987, were known for a style of documentary called “direct cinema”, in which they kept planning to a minimum and simply let the action unfold. They regularly included themselves in the frame, making us conscious of the intrusions of the camera. The best known Maysles brothers films are probably Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1976).
Iris is typical of the Maysles style, but lifted onto another plane by the startling presence of Iris Apfel, who manages to seem thoroughly down-to-earth, even if she does resemble a walking Christmas tree. There is more common sense in two minutes’ of Iris’s conversation than 99 minutes of Shaun Monson’s Unity.
Iris knows she has never been pretty, but like Diana Vreeland, she figured out early that style was much more important than good looks. Nowadays she feels sorry for all those pretty girls who have grown old without ever becoming interesting.
In 1948 she married Carl Apfel, who has just celebrated his hundredth birthday and still dotes on his wife. He’s happy to let Iris do most of the talking for him, even at his birthday party.
Carl shot a lot of home movies which Maysles has drawn upon to provide background for this story. In this footage we see the Apfels in their younger days, roaming the world on one shopping spree after another, as they seek out material for their highly successful interior decorating business. They even helped with the décor of the White House, although Jacqui Kennedy proved a difficult customer.
The Apfels seem to have kept much of the treasure they found on their scavenger hunts, as their apartments in Manhattan and Palm Beach are both crammed to the rafters with exotic bric-a-brac, some of it expensive and tasteful, some the merest kitsch. This also describes Iris’s voluminous archive of clothing. She might combine a designer dress with cheap costume jewellery bought at a street market, or a Chinese shaman’s jacket picked up on her travels. The consistent trademark is a pair of heavy-rimmed glasses that covers half of her face.
Iris compares her way of dressing to jazz improvisation. It is an instinctive process that drives her to mix colours and textures in a way that breaks every unwritten rule of fashion, but looks amazing. She has always done this, but her recognition as a fashion icon arrived late in life. The catalyst was an exhibition of her costume collection at the Metropolitan Museum of of Art in 2005, called Rara Avis – later simplifed to Rare Bird of Fashion.
Curator Harold Koda explains it was only ever intended as a stop-gap, replacing an exhibition that had fallen through. No-one was prepared for the massive crowds that poured through the show, driven almost exclusively by word-of-mouth. Suddenly Iris was a media superstar, doing interviews for leading magazines, and being asked to mentor fashion students. She was minding their own business when this wave of fame struck but has enjoyed every moment of her new-found status.
We tend to think of people who dress outrageously as narcissists, but Iris is not only modest, she never passes judgement on anyone else’s fashion sense. There can be nothing wrong with anyone’s outfit if it makes them happy. After all, she says, “it’s better to be happy than well-dressed.”
David Stratton seems happy to be released from the round of TV movie reviews and free to devote himself to other projects. One of the first is the Great Britain Retro Film Festival, which runs until 19 August at cinemas in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. It’s an indulgence for film buffs, as the 19 movies included are all extremely well known. The novelty is the chance to see new, digitally enhanced versions of classics such as The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and The Third Man (1949).
There used to be many occasions when one might see such films on the big screen, but today there is scarcely a repertory cinema to be found in our cities. Perhaps this festival suggests that audiences are starting to remember what movies were like in those days when artistry was ascribed to directors rather than computers.
Written & directed by Albert Maysles
Starring Iris Apfel, Carl Apfel,
USA, rated M, 80 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 15th August, 2015.