It’s rare to find a truly timeless style icon. In the age of social media, fast fashion, and digital reinvention, it’s even rarer to find one like Iris Apfel, whose iconic look has remained simultaneously fresh and unchanged for literally decades.
100-year-old style icon Iris Apfel just announced she’s celebrating her centenary by releasing an exclusive 100-piece collaboration with eyewear brand Zenni, all inspired by her evergreen and timeless look. The glasses break down into five categories: “Live Colorfully,” featuring bright, eye-catching styles; the “Bazaar Treasures,” designed with Apfel’s love of flea markets in mind; her “Signature Style” range, featuring Apfel’s signature oversized frames; the “Structural Design” selection, inspired by Apfel’s interest in architecture; and finally a “Mini Iris” range for children who want to emulate her timeless look.
As Apfel turns 100, still rocking her oversized frames, it’s a commentary on how the round, oversized look has been in style for so long. Apfel has been wearing those looks since long before she needed glasses, and they’ve remained in fashion for the intervening decades.
The risks of a signature look
Apfel’s love of dramatic eyewear is well-documented through the decades. She’s been known for her frames since before she even needed them, wearing outlandish styles she found in flea markets and bazaars. When the time came for prescription eyewear, she decided to go bold. “[I]f I’m going to have to wear glasses, I might as well have GLASSES,” she told Caroline Hallemann for Town & Country magazine on how she developed her signature oversized glasses look.
The fact that she’s been an influential figure in fashion for over seven decades gives a rare opportunity to examine the risks and merits of sticking to a single signature look. “Everyone should feel confident to express their personality or mood through how they present themselves to the world and have fun while doing it. That’s what I’ve always tried to do,” mused Apfel to Layla Ilchi for WWD.
It’s undeniably true: Apfel has remained true to herself and her sense of style for better or for worse.
“People usually recognize my oversized glasses before they even recognize me,” she wrote in an Instagram post. But rather than bothering her, she recognizes how that kind of recognition has paid dividends for her.
She credits her originality and personality for her rise to becoming a “geriatric starlet,” in Apfel’s own words. “You have to be true to yourself, you have to know yourself. Not be a trend follower. You’ve got to learn to take a few risks,” she said in a YouTube video on how success found her. Looking over her decades of work and style, it’s impossible to find a single example of Apfel not being herself to the nth degree.
It’s possible to argue that Apfel avoids pigeonholing herself because at no point does she play a role. She is herself, and she allows fashion and style to display all the facets of her personality.
While she does stick to a few key looks, her overall signature style is wearing whatever she feels like, ignoring today’s trends and what’s in vogue. Maybe that’s what allowed her to leapfrog between interior design, restoration, textile design, modelling, and being a fashion icon throughout her career.
Fashion before Instagram
You wouldn’t know it from looking at Apfel’s Instagram account (1.6 million followers strong), but as Apfel is 100, she clearly didn’t become famous by posting on social media. In fact, unlike many of today’s celebrities, she didn’t become internationally known for her fashion at all until she was 84.
In 2005-2006, her personal look was featured at the Costume Institution at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an exhibit called “Rara Avis,” or rare bird. The exhibit highlighted the crucial Iris Apfel components: her bright clothing, her layered jewellery, and of course, her oversized, round glasses.
Before she was a style icon, she developed her roots in textiles. She grew to prominence for the fabrics she and her husband, Carl Apfel, developed at Old World Weavers. She also consulted on nine restoration projects at the White House. Remarkably, she never sought out fashion fame. Instead, she just dressed for herself and her own tastes, mixing flea market finds with haute couture designs and almost accidentally stumbling into stardom.
“I always dressed for myself. I don’t care what anybody thinks. I’m not a rebel and I don’t do these things to shock anybody. Frankly, I don’t give a damn,” she told Today on her 99th birthday.
When today’s young models become famous on Instagram, it’s impossible for them to simply post without engaging with their audience. The balance between pursuing an individual, unique style while still meeting what your audience wants from you is tough to meet. Add to the mix the fact that attention spans are limited, and fans expect new and exciting content from you on a near-daily basis, and you get a recipe for style icons who follow trends instead of their own internal couture compass.
Compare that to Iris Apfel. Perhaps the absence of that insidious social media feedback loop is what allowed her to dress for nobody but herself.
What Iris Apfel says about her fashion
If you want to know what Apfel thinks about her own “more is more” style, all you have to do is look at the work she’s currently producing. Her collaboration with Zenni proves that, as always, her focus is on loud, bright, eye-catching looks that don’t compromise on personal taste. Looking at her collections, all the styles scream individuality with a wide range of options for anyone to enjoy.
In her collection, the things that matter to her are tastefully represented: her interest in architecture, her belief that fashion is accessible to all, her love of color and shapes, her love of flea markets and bazaars. Most prominent of all is her belief that fashion is how you represent yourself.
In her own timeless words, “When the fun goes out of dressing, you might as well be dead.” As she celebrates her 100th birthday, it’s safe to say Apfel is still having fun with fashion.