Film review: Iris

David Gritten / 28 July 2015

David Gritten reviews Iris, a hugely entertaining documentary about a nonagenarian New York style icon.

Iris Apfel is as persuasive an advertisement for the pleasures of old age as you’re likely to meet. She was 93 when she was filmed as the subject of this documentary, and throughout it she seems to regard life as a complete treat.

She cuts a startling figure, with her stylish, cropped silver hair and her giant black, perfectly round spectacles which dominate her face. And that’s before we even start on her clothes and her extraordinary sense of style.

Iris is a high priestess of the mix-and-match philosophy, and routinely combines haute couture outfits with cheap, gaudy jewellery. She often raids her huge collection of bulky amber necklaces, which make her clack as she walks. Her outfits on a given day might encompass striped sneakers she designed herself, black denim jeans or an Ungaro jacket paired with Versace trousers. “I like to improvise,” she says of her dress sense, “as though I’m playing jazz.”

But the key to Iris Apfel’s look is her ability to throw wildly diverse items of clothing together and carry it off with style. “My mother worshipped at the altar of the accessory,” she explains. It was her mother who explained the importance of a good little black dress; with multiple accessories it could be worn and look different time after time.

As Iris, Albert Maysles’s fine documentary about her, takes pains to emphasise, she has earned her current status as New York style icon, having studied art and design. For more than 40 years she and her husband Carl (they married in 1948) ran a successful textile firm called Old World Weavers. They also presided over restoration projects in America’s great mansions, including work at the White House for nine successive US presidents, starting with Harry Truman.

But what finally made Iris Apfel famous beyond the rag trade was a 2005 exhibition about her personal style at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Word of mouth spread fast, and visitors flocked to the museum to view her clothes and accessories.

A fascinating career, then. But Maysles (who died recently aged 87, and was best known for the dark, brooding Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter) captures the essence of the woman behind Iris’s distinctive public persona. This is no dotty eccentric; she has a sharp, quick wit, and comes across as both shrewd and wise. We see her haggling among the clothing racks at a street market. She is utterly opposed to plastic surgery: “God, no. You could come out worse than when you started.”

Everything she wears she has gone out and found, and she’s believable when she says she can be as happy with a $4 piece of costume jewellery as if her husband had taken her to (society jeweller) Harry Winston. Carl Apfel, incidentally, appears in the film – a handsome, genial man who turned 100 while Maysles was shooting it.

The result is pure joy, captured in 78 economical minutes. Not only is Iris Apfel a total original who stays true to her convictions, she’s an inspiration to anyone who glumly assumes old age is to be endured rather than enjoyed. Hugely entertaining and highly recommended. 

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