Old? Yes. Old-fashioned? Hardly. Albert Maysles profiles a one-of-a-kind New Yorker in ‘Iris’

April 16, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 16, 2015

Before the audience gets a glimpse of Iris Apfel, the subject of Albert Maysles’ recently released documentary, it hears her.

More precisely, the audience hears the bangles and necklaces Apfel wears as they gently click against one another.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that the late Maysles prepares us for our first look at the nonagenarian featured in Iris. If the aesthetic of this unlikely fashion icon could be summarized in one sentence, it would be, Nothing succeeds like excess. She seems to be wearing no fewer than three different necklaces and half a dozen bracelets at any one time, and her trademark oversized glasses all but openly dare the onlooker not to gawk.

Apfel’s homes seem to be bursting with clothing and knickknacks, all as vibrant and whimsical and over-the-top as her outfits. And yes, I meant homes: Iris and her husband, Carl Apfel, founded Old World Weavers, an enormously successful textile business that, among other things, contributed to White House design projects under nine presidents. They also, we later see, have an enormous warehouse stuffed with castoff treasures.

Personality-wise, the brassy Apfel seems to be almost as in-your-face as her clothing and decor. And yet, Iris succeeds because Apfel has an inimitable, undeniable charm.

As Maysles tells it, Apfel started transforming from largely obscure (at least to the general public) retiree into a fashion guru about 10 years ago. After an exhibition fell through at virtually the last minute, a friend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Apfel’s home city, New York, asked to display selections from Iris’s extensive collection of costume jewelry.

The exhibition became a surprise hit, leading to adoring press coverage and headlines designating Apfel the new 80-something starlet. She launched her own line of accessories, became a sought-after fashion consultant, and inspired at least one Bergdorf Goodman display window show.

Iris contains a bit of biography and shares snippets of Apfel’s design philosophy, and it features a few talking heads who discuss her impact on the fashion scene. But for the most part, the movie just puts the woman’s personality on display.

Apfel seems genuinely engaged with the people around her, more so than many people her age. She also seems more genuine than some of those around her, in particular but not exclusively the TV shopping network host who’s briefly seen gushing over Apfel’s every pronouncement.

Her sense of humor is pretty keen, too. After her nephew reported hearing visitors to Apfel’s costume jewelry museum speculate that she was dead, she instructed him to say: “My auntie’s very much alive; she’s just walking around to save funeral costs.”

The specter of death lends Iris a gravity that it might have lacked had Maysles filmed the picture before he and Apfel reached a certain age. Carl, who celebrates his 100th birthday in front of Maysles’s camera, falls at some point after the documentary begins, much to Iris’s distress. With her impending mortality in mind, she arranges to donate some of her belongings to a museum. And a few viewers, watching Iris, will be only too aware that it’s one of the director’s last works. (That point is driven home by the film’s final shot, in which director and subject sit side by side, with the latter maternally inquiring about the comfort of the former.)

For me, Iris summoned a number of personal memories, some of them fragmentary — almost primal sensory impressions, really. My family never traveled in circles remotely like those of the Apfels, or not that I know of, and their style aesthetics were far more restrained than Iris’s.

Yet seeing Iris in her twilight, I was reminded me of my grandmothers, both of whom died years ago. For me, in a way, Sarah and Kappy embodied New York City, much as Iris Apfel seems to for her admirers. They were beloved originals, and even if they weren’t as widely known as Iris, they were still irreplaceable — just like her.

Fortunately, Maysles’s movie captures a sense of this Big Apple original. And while I initially found Iris off-putting, in the end, I was grateful that it allowed me to get to know this remarkable woman.

Author’s note: Please see the latter part of this post for details about my attendance at the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which is due to a generous gift from a friend. Also, although I always strive for accuracy, I did not take notes during 2015 festival screenings. I apologize in advance if I’ve muffed any dialogue, names or other details in my write-ups. MEM

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