Our kind of muse: Iris Apfel on how to be stylish at any age

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With her new film in UK cinemas this week, nonagenarian style icon Iris Apfel is captivating audiences with her whip-smart wit and style, not to mention the true-love story with her husband Carl. We caught up with the New York entrepreneur to talk about her ageless style, deafening jewellery and cosmetic surgery - oh, and several First Ladies.

Why does fashion suddenly love bright old things?

It is brands wising up to the fact that pretty young things don’t have the money to buy expensive products and the older population has got the expendable income, the time and desire to go shopping and indulge. They have been grossly overlooked for many years. It’s insanity to show these luxury products on a 12-and-a-half-year-old who has been photoshopped. It’s ridiculous. Older women don’t look like that; they can’t relate to that. Brands cut off their noses to spite their faces and they're wising up to it. There are plenty of attractive, older women who want to stay attractive.

Do you mind talking about your age?

Why should I mind? I’m 93 and proud of it. If God is good enough to let you live that long, glory in it. Don’t try to say 'I’m 62!', 'I’m a baby!'. I don’t know why women deny their age. I’m very opposed to it.

Would you ever have plastic surgery?

I’m violently opposed to it. Why rely on something so artificial? If you want to improve yourself do something in your head not on your head. God put plastic surgeons on this earth to help people who need them. People who have been disfigured in accidents, who have been in a fire or if you have a nose like Pinocchio and you need to get it fixed. For an ordinary woman who just wants to change the way she looks – no. I have seen cases of people looking like a Picasso painting. It costs a fortune and there is no guarantee of the results. If you are doing it just to look young, your hands will always give the game away. Besides your friends know your age - if you're 75 and all of sudden you turn 35 - they're going to wonder. 

How do you keep young?

I just live. I do my own thing. I am very busy. I do charity work, I design several lines that I peddle on the home shopping network, I have a collection for MAC cosmetics, I have an eye-glass collection, I do a mentoring programme at the University of Texas, I write articles – I do too much.

What does your husband, Carl make of it all?

My husband isn’t very well. He had his 100th birthday and he can’t do much socially, so I’ve stepped up. I like to be busy, occupied and a part of this world. Age is just a number. I know people half my age who act twice my age.

Iris Apfel and jewellery designer Alexis Bittar

How do you grow old gracefully?

By living gracefully. It’s common sense, being appropriate. You keep your arms covered, you shouldn’t show your knees, dress appropriately not like a young hippy. Appropriate is a dirty word now but it shouldn't be.

How do you stop your look from going too far?

I can’t give you any formula – it’s if it feels right to me. I can carry off a lot of things, but it doesn’t mean it looks great on everyone. It’s about knowing who you are. It’s not easy, it takes time and a lot of living. It’s painful as there might be a lot of things you won’t like. Learn who you are and be comfortable with the way you dress. It is better to be comfortable and happy than well dressed and uptight.  

Is your jewellery heavy?

Very heavy, some is unbearably heavy. I like big tribal jewellery worn by Native American chiefs - these were big strong guys, I can't really support them. I have to be assured that I can sit down within seven minutes - otherwise I fall down.

AB IRIS 2014

Do you have a favourite stone?

Well I love turquoise but I am not a gemstone person. I like wonderful faux jewellery, I never had a yen for diamonds or pearls. Man can make wonderful things at a fraction of the price and be much more creative and take more chances. When I was young I was a great fan of haute couture jewellery - it was all fake.

What do you love about Alexis?

I first fell in love with his jewellery and then we became friends - we have developed a very good friendship. He is a very talented guy – sweet, kind and understanding. He is expecting twins and I will be the Godmother to his daughter.

Do you love to play dress up?

I like to do it when I have the time. I’m so busy I find I am wearing the same thing over and over – but it’s great fun to take something out of your closet and to rework it. I have many things I love. I still have the dress I wore on my first date with my husband 67 years ago this month. It is a beautiful black Norman Norell dress. Most of my clothes are on loan to the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts where I will bequeath them.

Your glasses are your trademark, did you need glasses when you started wearing them?

No. I am a flea market freak. I don’t get there often these days, I’m always looking for accessories. When I saw an outlandish pair of glasses that I liked then I would try them. I thought they look so much fun, they do something to this outfit. I just wore them without the lenses. Then, when I had to wear glasses, I figured I’ll wear these and I had lenses put in my frames. People always ask: 'Why do you have that ridiculous pair of glasses?'. And I say: 'The bigger to see you with.' That would shut them up. But people made them my trademark. I have never had a business plan. I never decided that, these things just happened. I don’t do things intellectually, I do things instinctively.

Do you see many people imitating your style?

I see a lot of people trying! I’m flattered and honoured that at my age people are still paying attention.

Does Carl like your look?

He likes it very much. The only two people who I worried about pleasing were my mother and my husband. People always worry about what other people think. I think that’s not my problem.

What style lessons did your mother teach you?

She had wonderful style, she was much more conventional and ladylike more like the Duchess of Windsor. She was very polished and never had a hair out of place. She taught me a lot, my mum worshiped at the altar of the accessory. She taught me the value of accessories. I grew up in the Depression years, she taught me to choose basic, simple clothes in the best fabric I could afford and the best cut, and to embellish them with accessories. Out of one dress I could get a million outfits. I could take the same black dress and go from breakfast to business and end up at a cocktail party all by changing the accessories.

Your textile business, Old World Weavers was used for curtains and drapes in the White House – did you have a favourite President or First Lady?

It was an interesting time. I met some of the Presidents, and I met a number of the wives. You don’t design the White House, you simply try to replicate the original antique fabrics. It could be the most hideous thing in the world but it is historic restoration. The most interested was Mrs Nixon. She was passionately interested, she was a lovely lady. She didn’t know a lot about these things but she was very eager to learn. She would pick something that was invariably the wrong thing but she would realise it. She was very humble about it and she wasn’t offended. I love people who are interested. She was very sweet and I loved her concern about the house.

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Iris Apfel in the spring campaign for Alexis Bittar alongside blogger Tavi Gevinson

Which decade is your style most suited to?

I think my clothes go across decades. I can only tell you that when I had my first show at the Met, Roberta Smith of the New York Times said: ‘Before multiculturalism was a word, Mrs Apfel was wearing it.’ My clothes are mostly from the 40s onwards. When I was in London last I got a couple of vintage things from Bill Gibb from the 70s. A grey leather coat, which I wear as a dress with wonderful tribal jewellery, and a brown leather maxi-dress that is very fitted. They call me the rare bird and there are two rare birds on each side. It's really fabulous, I’ve worn it many times.

Why are people so captivated by you?

I wonder about that. I am not doing anything different than I was doing 70 years ago yet all of a sudden…

What makes you happy?

Waking up in the morning and being able to breathe.

And what would you like to do next?

I’d love to go to India but I don’t know if I will.

 

Alexis Bittar is available at Fenwick Bond Street and Newcastle.

By Claire Brayford