IRIS APFEL: THE AFICIONADO

Lauded interior designer and enduring fashion icon, 94-year-old Iris Apfel has lost none of her joie de vivre, nor her magpie instinct for global treasures.

By John O’Ceallaigh

Born in Queens in New York, Iris Apfel studied fine arts before setting up her own interior-design business and then founding the textile company Old World Weavers with her late husband Carl. Together they travelled the world, sourcing fabrics, antiques and curios for the White House and prestigious households throughout America. Her strikingly original wardrobe, composed of haute couture, flea-market finds and unexpected artefacts discovered on her frequent jaunts abroad, formed the basis of the 2005 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Iris Apfel, Rare Bird of Fashion”. Today, at 94, 10 years after she became a fashion icon, the self-described “geriatric starlet” remains active as a model, designer and revered style adviser.

I’m always pretty good at marrying pieces so that they don’t look like they were put together. When I’d visit the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Carl and I would go in to the back of jewellers, where they’d brew us tea. I bought the most unbelievable treasures there that I wouldn’t sell for anything – mostly antique pieces such as harem jewellery made with mine-cut diamonds in wonderful settings.

The whole world has become homogenised. But Naples is somewhere where people have always had enormous style. We went right after the big war and in the very early Fifties, when the people there didn’t have anything. But they had a zest for life and looked wonderful. It was their attitude, not what they wore.

When I began travelling to London I became friendly with a lot of the traders at Portobello market and went to their homes for tea or dinner. It was there that I started getting into church vestments. I bought them in London and then from some people in Paris who specialised in antique fabrics.

I find shopping today very difficult. But recently I visited the most wonderful shop in Barcelona, a lifestyle place called Azul Tierra. The owner has exquisite taste and mixes contemporary with antique things. I was really very taken with the place.

I love flea markets. I just like older things and think they have much more of a soul than these machine-made contemporary objects, which don’t have any inner life. I look at something old and think: “Who owned you? Where did you live before? Were you happy there?” It makes it much more interesting for me.

I’ve always been a fabrics freak and from the Fifties, we’d go once or twice a year to Europe and fill a container or two. We’d go to Belgium for linens, England for prints (the country was always known for chintz and prints), antique fabrics in Paris and complicated handwoven silks from Italy. Everybody who was anybody came to us, from Greta Garbo to Estée Lauder and even OJ Simpson back in the day, who came with Nicole and bodyguards. Oh my god, he was drop-dead gorgeous.

Museums are the last bastion of civilisation and, with the way the world is going, we have to protect them as much as we can. I think much of contemporary art is a case of the emperor’s new clothes and I find it insulting, but I love Old Master drawings and old paintings. The Metropolitan Museum in New York is one of the greatest encyclopaedic museums going.

I don’t think there’s another city that’s quite as multilevelled as New York. You find people from all over the world there, every kind of food, every kind of product. If you can’t find it in New York, it doesn’t exist. It’s true. You may have to search for it or pay for it, but it’s there.