Beautiful Thinking.

“A sense of wonder, a sense of humour, and a sense of curiosity.” Why Iris Apfel will forever remain Paul’s dream dinner date

As an agency that champions attitude over age, there are few who embodied this ethos better than the iconic Iris Apfel.

In February 2024, our Co-Founder & Creative Strategy Director, Paul Domenet chose Iris as a candidate for our ‘Beautiful Thinker’ series, crafting this very piece in celebration of all that she brought to the world. It was with great sadness that we saw the news of her passing on March 1st 2024. And so here, we seek to celebrate a life lived in pursuit of creativity. 

A self-confessed “geriatric starlet”, Apfel was a heartwarming and vital example of why the digital age did not belong solely to the generations who were born into a world online. At 102, the Queens, New York native has been celebrated not only in an exhibition at the world-famous MOMA Costume Institute and immortalisation in Barbie-form, she boasted more than 3 million followers on Instagram thanks to her zest for life and inimitable style. Her bio spoke for itself, “more is more, and less is a bore.”

In Paul’s words,

“she surprised, she defied convention, she was creativity made flesh. Her creations are beautiful and disruptive. She didn’t give a shit.” It was both her reverence for life and irreverence for the norm that made her an icon for so many.

Her passion for fashion began at a young age, or more specifically – her passion for fabric. Playing with fabric scraps gifted to her by her grandmother, Iris developed an eye for the colours, textures, and weaves of different materials. It is clear that this hunger to understand what made up different fabrics and how they came together was key to how she developed her signature eclectic style. 

It was also the foundation for her successful career in the industry, achieved in partnership with her late husband, Carl Apfel. Together they launched ‘Old World Weavers’ in 1950. This international fabric manufacturing company was run by the married couple for 42 years. Their specialisms in fabric from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, developed through their international sourcing trips twice a year, saw them take on restoration projects in the White House for no less than nine US presidents. Her clientele included stars such as Greta Garbo and Estee Lauder. 

Their “retirement” from the factory in 1992 was by no means the end of Iris’ career. In fact, she put her view on retirement across eloquently in an interview with Time magazine to mark her 100th birthday: “I think retiring at any age is a fate worse than death.”

With her devoted husband as her champion, Iris’ star quality was sparked with the announcement of an exhibition dedicated to her revered style. The famed Museum of Metropolitan Art’s Costume Institute – whose celebrated exhibitions include the dedicated theme for Anna Wintour’s annual Met Ball – launched an exhibit in 2005 titled, “Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel”.

A large collection of Apfel’s iconic clothing and accessories was showcased, championing her distinctive ability to layer patterns, colours and textures, tied together with accessories which include her signature oversized tortoise-shell glasses. It marked the first time that someone who was not a designer had their collection displayed at the MOMA. 

Dubbed “one of America's quintessential stylemakers” MOMA shared that “Iris Apfel is one of the most vivacious personalities in the worlds of fashion, textiles, and interior design, and over the past 40 years, she has cultivated a personal style that is both witty and exuberantly idiosyncratic. 

They went on to say, “With remarkable panache and discernment, she combines colours, textures, and patterns without regard to period, provenance, and, ultimately, aesthetic conventions.”

The exhibition was just the beginning. In 2011 (and at 90 years old) she became the face of MAC Cosmetics with a limited edition collection. In Iris’ words, “I’m the oldest living broad that ever graced a major cosmetics campaign.” 

At 91, she graced the cover of Dazed & Confused. Her decades in fashion were honoured in the 2015 documentary, Iris. Her status in the industry was further cemented when in 2019, she was signed to international model agency, IMG, at the age of 97. 

The fashion world’s infatuation with Apfel was celebrated again when in 2018, she released her book, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon. To commemorate the release of the book, Mattel announced a one-of-a-kind Barbie depicting Iris in her one-of-a-kind style. With this launch, Iris claimed the title of oldest person to ever have a Barbie designed for them.

It was also in her book that Iris shared her dedication to her late husband, her love for whom is arguably as timeless as her style. She described Carl, who passed away in 2015, just three days away from his 101st birthday, as her biggest supporter: “his encouragement and unwavering support made this book possible.”

“He pushed me into the limelight and then basked in my success. He got much more of a kick from the accolades I received than I did. I miss him madly. Sleep well, sweet prince.”

Many of us wouldn’t be ashamed to admit that the idea of ageing can be a daunting prospect. Apfel’s joie de vivre is something which all of us should strive to emulate.

“If you want to stay young, you have to think young. Having a sense of wonder, a sense of humour, and a sense of curiosity — these are my tonic…they keep you young, childlike, open to new people and things, ready for another adventure. I never want to be an old fuddy-duddy; I hold the self-proclaimed record for being the World’s Oldest Living Teenager and I intend to keep it that way.”

Life, and long life, lesson? Be more Iris. She will be sorely missed by so many.

FTB Free The Birds
Sign up for our monthly news and views