‘IRIS’: a splash of color, a flash of music and a dash of common sense

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/10/23/iris-a-splash-of-color-a-flash-of-music-and-a-dash-of-common-sense/

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The heart and humor of 94-year-old iconic fashionista Iris Apfel rips apart the seams of the industry that celebrates her style in this laugh-out-loud film directed by Albert Maysles.

Dorchester-born Maysles, whose other directorial credits include “Gimmie Shelter” and “Grey Gardens,” struts more than Apfel’s attire across runways. Maysles also focuses on her personality. The legendary 88-year-old film documentarian is a former psychologist who skillfully creates a sense of edginess, immediacy, and frequent intimacy. He accessorizes the piece with bright lights, rocking music, and quick edits. The film is intriguing from the first frame to the last.

A self-described geriatric starlet, Iris shows verve in the movie, which promotes being true to one’s self. Apfel wears saucer-sized spectacles, which both correct her vision and metaphorically adjust our own perception of fashion’s purpose in this retrospective of her life.

At first, the film introduces us to a white-haired woman who is the stylish antithesis of synthesis. She is to fashion what Jackson Pollock is to painting, Dizzy Gillespie is to music, and E. E. Cummings is to poetry. Her clothing is a kaleidoscope of color, her bracelets a jangle of sound, and her necklaces sway their own way. Apfel also speaks of her intentions to do no one harm, take fashion and herself less seriously, and enjoy life.

Maysles’ lens tightens on Iris’ face as she reflects feelings of frustration at being left alone as a young girl. Her Russian mother worked as a fashion boutique owner, and her father was an importer. Living in Queens as an emotionally isolated only child, the independent young woman convinced herself that she would never have children. The pain of loneliness was too great an imposition.

She grew up to study art history at NYU. In 1948, working as an interior designer, she met and married advertising executive Carl Apfel. Combining her artistic flare with his business acumen, they established a manufacturing company called “Old World Weavers.” The business stitched together their shared love of globetrotting, rummaging for artisan crafts, bazaar bartering, and hunting for exotic textiles. For 42 years, the Apfels’ eyes wove seemingly random odds and ends together into an otherworldly treasure trove of sophisticated style. Sought after for their understanding of textiles, originality, and attention to detail, the duo worked as restoration specialists for many of the world’s greatest museums. Though nine White House administrations, their creations inspired the interior designs for Presidents and First Ladies Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton.

As they traveled, Iris indulged her fascination with acquiring finely embroidered liturgical vestments, tribal attire, and the nonchalant styles of chic Europeans. To the Apfels, each culture’s notes were a symphony of style. Trekking across global boundaries and erasing punctuation marks between couture and kitsch, the couple saw synergy rather than discord across in the diverse cultures they visited.

When professional responsibilities included socializing with clientele, Iris avoided wearing predictable pretty frocks created by the designers du jour. She saw the looks as uniform and lacking originality. Instead, she wore a poetic fusion of flowing ensembles, such as ministerial robes with tribal African and Navaho jewelry with Versace trousers and loose feathers.  She experimented playfully with color, sound, and textures, becoming a fashion icon to the designers whose work she rejected.

“IRIS” shows the loving Apfel couple living between cluttered apartments in Palm Beach and New York. Although her collections were well-known among artsy crowds, her fame grew when she became a last minute replacement for a fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute in 2005. The hastily installed, serendipitous show of Iris’ clothes and accessories culled from her closets, led to Iris becoming a name that was synonymous with an age-defying, multicultural liberation of style.

As the music softens, the photography focuses on Iris’ eyes when she dotes on her beloved 100-year-old business partner/husband/serenader, Carl. Her white hair and black signature glasses fill the screen. She says she loses sleep worrying over health concerns. She and Carl have been inseparable for more than 67 years. Time feels like it is slipping away during this study of black and white.

The documentary concludes the way it began, filled with laughter and love. “IRIS” is more than an 83-minute fashion film; its colors, music, and sentiments celebrate curiosity, ageless creativity, and a love of life.

The PG film is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, or Netflix.

Albert Maysles passed away in New York on March 5, 2015, a month before this film premiered.

Carl Apfel passed away in Palm Beach on Aug. 1, 2015, three days shy of his 101st birthday.

Diane Kilgore is a Boston-area blogger.