When I think of Iris Apfel, I think of the jangle of bracelets and bangles and a queen's accent. I think of Harlem flea market finds stacked next to Saks Fifth treasures. "Another mad outfit," as Apfel would say. That right there is exactly why Ms. Apfel is my style icon. Photos of this 94-year-old woman are taped up on my wall next to Vogue editorials and my favorite Margot Tenenbaum-inspired Prada ads. Her red lips and tea saucer-like specs smile back at me, encouraging me to play.
Iris Apfel is a New York native born to humble beginnings in Queens, with a Russian immigrant mother and a father who owned a family glass-and-mirror business. According to Vanity Fair, she became a businesswoman when she and her husband launched a successful textile firm called Old World Weavers, but she's not best known for her business savvy. Rather, she's beloved for her style icon prowess. So much so, in fact, that The Costume Institute At The Metropolitan Museum Of Art put together an exhibit about her style.
A woman always wrapped in brightly-hued furs and rocks made out of turquoise and amber, Apfel has taught me that individuality and the way we interact with life are what build our style. Below are seven additional reasons why this rare bird is my icon.
1. She Makes Me Want To Embrace Individuality
Apfel is the type of woman who puts on what she wants simply because she loves it. She wears smoking slippers with couture gowns, heavy amber necklaces on top of fur stoles, and patterns atop of dizzying patterns, atop more dizzying patterns.
While that might sound like a lot going on, it's actually just enough. The reason for that is because you can tell she really enjoys what she wears, and you'd be hard pressed not to love it back. When seeing a woman embrace her style so fully, I can't help but begin to want to do the same with my own.
2. She Reminds Me That Dressing Up Is Hella Fun
In the beginning of the 2015 documentary Iris, Apfel is getting ready for an event that she'll be speaking at, shuffling around her packed-to-the-gills Upper East Side apartment, throwing on a fur stole as casually as I would a sweatshirt. She says, "It's the process I like much better than the wearing it." And how wonderfully true is that?
Apfel is one of my biggest style role models because of her attitude: She delights in fashion. She doesn't see it as a stressful thing you need to achieve so strangers on the train can side-eye you in approval, but rather as the equivalent of playing. When watching Apfel choose her outfits, it's like watching a little girl crawl into her mom's closet and begin to pull out hats and stoles and high heels. Personally, it makes my hands itch to delve into my own closet and see what I can come up with.
3. She Taught Me That "Pretty" Shouldn't Be The End Goal
In the documentary Iris, Ms. Apfel looks candidly into the camera and says, "I'm not pretty, and I'll never be pretty, but it doesn't matter. I have something much better. I have style." You don't oftentimes hear a fashion-oriented woman discredit the power of "pretty," and that's one of the many reasons why I love her.
Apfel taught me that style isn't about being beautiful by mainstream standards. It's not about making sure your shoes match your belt, and it's not about giving yourself a new level of polish so you can appear more conventionally attractive. Rather, it's about emotion, history, and experience.
4. If You Truly Love Something, No Matter How Weird It Is, You Have To Go With It
In a 2015 interview with Let's Do More, Apfel said, "You have to be yourself, be who you are and take time to be open and honest with yourself. That is what it's all about. If you don't know yourself, you'll never have great style. You'll never really live. To me, the worst fashion faux pas is to look in the mirror, and not see yourself."
While she's obviously talking about wearing what feels the most you, the thing I got from this piece of advice is to not be afraid of what you love, no matter how weird it may be. How many times have I found myself at the store only to see something eclectic and ridiculous and wonderfully amazing... only to let the doubts set in and as I stare at myself in the mirror? How many times have I worried the world isn't ready for all that?
Apfel has taught me not to refuse myself love when I see it, and not to limit myself from enjoying something just because some people might not get it.
5. She Taught Me To Make An Emotional Connection With Clothes
For the longest time, I'd buy things solely on the merit of cuteness. That dress was pretty; that print was cute; that backpack was quirky; that color was sweet. Then Apfel swept into my life and she challenged me to see clothes in a different way.
In the Iris documentary, Apfel shared, "My husband used to say I took a piece of fabric and listen to the threads. It tells me a story... I have to get a physical reaction when I buy something. A coup de foudre — a bolt of lightning. It's fun to get knocked out that way!"
After hearing this, I no longer wanted to buy something just because it was conventionally attractive. Instead, I wanted each piece in my closet to tug at me emotionally; I wanted to have a reaction every time I zipped something I loved, whether I felt bold and strong in it or creative and adventurous.
6. She Made Having A Style Seem Less Stressful
I would say I have a strong sense of style, but back in college when I was trying to sift through what I liked and didn't like, it all seemed so stressful. There were rules as thick as Vogue's September issue to keep in mind, and it was daunting. But if you think of style in those terms, then you're really missing out on the beauty of curating it.
When Apfel spoke at a lecture in the The Metropolitan Museum Of Art in 2012, she said something (or rather, her nephew sort of did) that changed the way I approached my style forever. "I was talking with my nephew this morning and he gave me one of the best quotes I’ve heard in years, ‘Personal style is curiosity about oneself.'"
That's all that style is: Curiosity about yourself. I don't have to have the "correct shoes" or the season's "It bag." I just have to explore who I am and, along the way, my style will piece itself together.
7. She Taught Me Never To Judge Someone Else's Look
Back in the day, I used to find myself looking out of cab windows on occasion, only to see something questionable: Maybe blue lipstick, a tie-dye dress, a sequined mini at 10 a.m. And then I would find myself wrinkling my nose.
Ever since I started worshiping at the altar of Apfel, however, I've learned never to judge someone else's look by comparing it to my own. I mean, why should I? Their experiences and preferences are different than mine, and that's OK. That's as it should be.
In an interview with One Kings Lane, Apfel wisely said, “What’s my style is not your style, and I don’t see how you can define it. It’s something that expresses who you are in your own way.” Just because I wouldn't necessarily choose to wear a sequined mini dress early in the morning doesn't mean no one else should. After all, I once went to go buy milk wearing an evening gown and thought nothing of it.
At the end of the day, finding your style is a journey through life. That's what Apfel has taught me.