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Fashion World Mourns as Iris Apfel, Icon of Individuality, Passes Away at 102

An iconic character in American fashion, Iris Apfel, had an immense effect on design, self-expression, and enterprise. Her destiny was to make a name for herself in the fashion and interior design industries. Throughout her astonishing life, which spanned more than a century, Apfel charmed followers worldwide with her extravagant style, distinctive large eyeglasses, and unyielding personality. Sadly, she passed away on Friday at her residence in Palm Beach, Florida, at the age of 102.

Raised in a loving family environment, Iris Apfel was the only child of Samuel and Sadye Barrel, both of Jewish descent. Her upbringing on a farm instilled in her a deep appreciation for creativity, resourcefulness, and the beauty of the world around her. Despite humble beginnings, young Iris exhibited a keen eye for aesthetics, often accompanying her parents on excursions into Manhattan, where she developed a love for the eclectic charm of Greenwich Village. As a child, Apfel’s fascination with antiques and jewellry from around the globe laid the foundation for her future endeavours in the world of fashion and design. The Great Depression, while a challenging time for many, served as a catalyst for her family’s resourcefulness and ingenuity, igniting Apfel’s lifelong passion for creativity and self-expression on a budget.

Apfel’s academic journey led her to New York University, where she pursued studies in art history, nurturing her passion for cultural heritage and artistic expression. Subsequently, she continued her education at the University of Wisconsin, honing her skills in art and design. These formative years provided Apfel with a solid foundation upon which she would build her illustrious career.

In her early professional career, Apfel’s eclectic talents found expression in various roles, including as a copywriter for Women’s Wear Daily and as an assistant to renowned interior designer Elinor Johnson. These experiences not only sharpened her eye for style but also cultivated her knack for sourcing rare and unique items, a skill that would later define her signature aesthetic.

In 1948, Iris Apfel married Carl Apfel, marking the beginning of a lifelong partnership both personally and professionally. Two years later, the couple embarked on a groundbreaking venture, founding the textile firm Old World Weavers. Specializing in the reproduction of fabrics from the 17th to 19th centuries, the Apfels revolutionised the industry with their commitment to craftsmanship and attention to detail.

Over the course of four decades, Iris and Carl Apfel’s business flourished, garnering acclaim for their exquisite textiles and restoration projects. Their work extended to prestigious clients, including the White House, where they undertook design restoration projects spanning nine presidential administrations. Apfel’s keen eye and impeccable taste made her an invaluable asset in the world of design, earning her the admiration of clients and colleagues alike.

Rara Avis: The Irreverent Iris Apfel | Screw it. I'm FIERCE
Rara Avis: The Irreverent Iris Apfel | Courtesy: Screw it. I’m FIERCE

Apart from her support for Old World Weavers, Apfel’s love of fashion and design compelled her to explore the globe in pursuit of handcrafted apparel and accessories. Her signature style, which was defined by vivid hues, elaborate patterns, and unusual combinations, became well-known and served as an inspiration to several generations of fashionistas. Apfel’s impact went beyond the field of design, gaining her notoriety as a fashion trailblazer and cultural figure. With the ground-breaking show “Rara Avis: The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” which honoured her with an unrivalled collection of costume jewellery and avant-garde costumes, The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art honoured her in 2005.

Apfel’s magnetic presence and fearless approach to style captured the imagination of audiences worldwide, leading to her portrayal in the acclaimed documentary “Iris” by filmmaker Albert Maysles. Released in 2014, the documentary offered a glimpse into Apfel’s extraordinary life and celebrated her as a true icon of self-expression and individuality.

Courtesy: IRIS Films via Facebook

In 2019, at the remarkable age of 97, Iris Apfel made headlines once again by signing a modelling contract with global agency IMG, defying ageist stereotypes and inspiring people of all ages to embrace their unique sense of style and identity. Her decision to pursue modelling in her later years epitomised her fearless spirit and unyielding commitment to self-expression.

In her later years, Apfel continued to inspire and empower others through her philanthropic efforts and advocacy for causes close to her heart. Her legacy lives on through the countless lives she touched, the barriers she broke, and the timeless elegance and individuality she embodied.

In recognition of her contributions to the world of fashion and design, Iris Apfel received numerous awards and honours, including recognition from The Guardian as one of the “Best-Dressed over 50” and the Women Together Special Award of the Year. Her impact on the fashion industry extended beyond her lifetime, with Mattel immortalising her in the form of a Barbie doll and museums planning retrospectives to celebrate her unparalleled legacy.

Feature Image: Ms. Apfel posed near a showcase of her collection at Le Bon Marché in Paris in 2016.| Courtesy: Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

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