First things first: Iris Apfel’s famously eclectic sense of style is every bit as fun and entertaining as you would expect from a documentary dedicated to it. In fact, the guy watching it next to me at A Design Film Festival Singapore 2015 was so thoroughly enamoured by her eccentricities and sardonic sense of humour that he kept exclaiming: “She’s so cute!” to his companion as the film rolled. Likening her improvisational approach to dressing up to playing jazz, Apfel’s sensibility veers unapologetically towards the incongruous and maximal, defying any stereotypical notion of a pint-sized 90-year-old woman. So cue the out-sized baubles and bug-eye frames, cartoon-y motifs and enough prints and bright colours to “raise the dead”, as she deadpans. Her irreverent aesthetic doesn’t end with styling herself too, as her beloved husband Carl Apfel has clearly also been a good humoured beneficiary of her unique eye, sporting paisley pants and gold studded caps at her suggestion.
Nonetheless, even though Iris more than delivers the goods for fans who have long admired her style, what strikes a deeper chord is the person under the extraordinary finery. To see Apfel as a naively idiosyncratic fashionista who is merely happy to indulge her inner child would be to miss the point. If anything, what belies the sartorial spectacle is a woman who is hard as nails and has an unwavering sense of who she is. Having led a peripatetic life spent travelling the world as a renowned interior designer, Apfel’s style is a bold assertion of her unusual life choices and her insatiable curiosity for history and culture. It is also a statement of defiance against society’s worship of conventional prettiness.
However, for all its celebration of boldness, the documentary is more meaningfully read as a meditation on life, opportunities both taken and missed, and mortality. Indeed, for someone who has made her name dealing so intensely with images and the material, Apfel at times seems instead to underscore the immateriality of these very things in Iris. Of course, her immense pleasure from the attention of being a “geriatric starlet” is apparent, but there are moments when the woman emerges as a distinctly separate entity from the seemingly jovial and quirky persona the world has fallen in love with. This is especially stark during the moments we witness the Apfels deal with inevitable physical ailments that descend with age. Fashion, she says, never keeps her up at night. “Matters of health and things like that [do]. Things that are really important.” Director Albert Maysles, himself battling pancreatic cancer at the time of filming, was undoubtedly thinking about these himself. This idea of mortality is also poignantly echoed in Apfel tending to her legacy as she gives away precious garments and furniture that have been accumulated over a lifetime. While her life is by no means one poorly lived, the closing of bygone chapters is no easier even for one who has grabbed life by the horns. Her indefatigable efforts to keep busy then become all the more remarkable, not least because of her determination to live as large a life as possible rather than surrendering to infirmity, this impulse translated through her inimitable “dead-raising” aesthetic.
In the end, the one message that’s clear from Iris is that we all have one shot at this life, and how we compose it is what really matters in the end.