This week a teacher and friend posted a placard touting the acronym STEAM. Enhancing the education of STEM students ( science,technology,engineering and math) by adding art is seen as a practical advancement, for “what good is any education if one can’t creatively use it”. The “steam metaphor” can be extended. Steam dissipates and reaches:it flows further; whereas, a stem holds one beautiful thing up, steam opens all pores. The documentary “Iris” illustrates how art and hand-crafted trades deepen our lives by polishing our individuality and connecting us to the art of show. “Iris” is also a love story and a peek at personal history.
Iris Apfel is a “rare bird” who for over seventy-five years influenced interior design and fashion with her personal style. She is engaging and pulsing with life and mission. While not everyone grew up reading back issues of “Women’s Wear Daily”, I ,too, find the intersection of design,verve and collection fun. As director,Albert Mayles (87 himself) films Iris twirling and bowing Ungaro-clad ,we see her as legendary.
How many of us look for a fabric that doesn’t exist? And how many of us seekers would decide to weave our fantasy fabrics ourselves? This is just what the “nonagenerian starlet” Iris Apfel does when she opens Old World Weavers with her husband Carl. The textile company which ran from 1950 through 1992 restored a handcrafted fashion trade. Reproducing fabrics from the past led Iris to restoration projects at the White House. From Truman through Clinton,nine administrations called for her expertise.
In her own words,Iris is a ” busy bee”. From her wheelchair we see her in the process of collecting,haggling with street vendors and playing the bargain hunting game. Her whisky voice announces “I need a scotch after this”. Her renown collection of costume jewelry is a key part of her accessorizing process. As she layers one necklace on top of another she states, ” Do something like this and you start to get a look”. Mayles takes us to the Apfel’s Long Island storage loft as Iris starts to unload her travel acquisitions. Much, I learned , will be sold on “One King’s Lane” this year. Every piece has a memory.
At 90, we see Iris lecturing as visiting professor at the University of Texas,Austin. We see her gifting costumes to museums with exhibitions at The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan, The Norton Museum at West Palm Beach, and The Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. A museum dedicated to displaying her clothing is in the works. From her middle class Queens up-bringing during the Depression to her background in art history through her gut level improvisations,we see a practical business woman who does not compose her visions in designer speak. Her “very Voguey” is almost snarky. As we see her beloved husband blow out his 100 year birthday candles, we hear her “kind of like the eternal flame”wit. He is her “pussycat~cool,cuddly,and he cooks Chinese…couldn’t do any better!”
Bill Cunningham makes a cameo appearance in this film and reminds me of Iris’ quip, “Color can raise the dead”. It would be fun to see the Diane Vreeland,Cunningham and Apfel documentaries together.Curiosity and humor seem to be the attributes of these style holders.Whimsy and elegance pulse through business acumen and aging in this documentary. We are happy that this fashion maven is as she likes to say,”still vertical and sailing into her second century.”