Iris Apfel’s Life Dispels The Myth That Age And Competency Are Intrinsically Linked

Iris Apfel, most widely known for her eccentric fashion and style, died March 1 at 102. Energetic and hard-working, Apfel’s iconic fame came in her 80s and 90s, at a time when people are expected to exit stage left. For Apfel, these were the decades when her life catapulted to celebrity status. Like many others who have thrived in later life, Apfel’s life dispels agist myths and stereotypes that are prevalent in today’s culture and media. Namely, that age and competency are intrinsically linked when, in fact, they are not.

Born in 1921, both of her parents were successful business owners. Apfel studied art history at New York University before attending art school at the University of Wisconsin. After graduating, she was a copywriter for Women’s Wear Daily, a fashion trade journal. At 27, she met her husband, Carol Apfel, and they married a year later.

Working with her husband, they founded Old World Weavers, a tapestry business specializing in antique reproductions and fabric restoration. The specialization gave them entré to the rich and famous, including Greta Garbo and nine sitting presidents. For 42 years, they ran the business, traveling extensively to discover designs and fabrics that catered to their high-society clientele.

Style and Flair

Apfel’s travels enabled her to acquire exquisite jewelry and fabrics from Middle Eastern souks, which she paired with extravagant clothing and coats, often sporting feathers and fur. Her trademarks were combining high and low-end pieces, loading both arms with large, sometimes garish, bangles, layering necklaces one after the other and topping it off with large, saucer-shaped glasses.

When they sold their company in 1992, Apfel stayed on as a consultant. She never stopped working; it was part of who she was. Because she remained engaged and active, Apfel adventurously embraced the diverse paths that opened up to her.

In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute asked to showcase some of her unique jewelry. When they realized the display would be more effective as part of complete attire, Apfel opened her closets to the curators. A display with more than 80 styled ensembles and 300-plus accessories resulted. Appropriately titled “Rara Avis: The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” the curation acknowledged Apfel as a rare bird whose unique style never followed tradition.

Stardom as an Octo- and Nonagenarian

Apfel’s style of mixing glam with costume, bold with bolder and never shying away from adding just one more of anything–and being able to make it work–made her a fashion icon. After the Met’s show, people couldn’t get enough of her. Apfel was 84.

Still, more was to come.

At 90, she became an instructor at the University of Texas.

At 93, she starred in her documentary, Iriswhere she shared that she never meant to become famous.“It just kind of happened.”

At 96, she published her book, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon.

At 97, she signed a modelling contract with global agency IMG Models. Her representation was the same as supermodels Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss and Kate Moss.

If that’s not enough, Apfel is the oldest person whose image Mattel has used to produce a Barbie.

Creativity in Growing Older

In The Times, Anna Murphy wrote last month, “Apfel once lamented to me what she called ‘this disgusting sameness. People… all seem to want to look the same.’ Clothes for her are ‘an exercise in creativity.’ I like to think that is what growing older can be too.”

Growing older can (and perhaps should) become an exercise of creativity for all of us. But it requires culture to release the ageist, ableist stereotypes about what older people can or should do. And it takes older people to push back and refuse to accept the disgusting sameness expected of them.

The number of Americans ages 100 and older is projected to more than quadruple over the next three decades, according to projections from the U.S. Census Bureau. In the last three decades alone, the U.S. centenarian population has nearly tripled. In other parts of the world, this percentage is even higher.

So, how many Iris Apfels does it take to dispel the agist myths that age and capacity are intrinsically linked? One is never too old to make a difference.

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