Iris Apfel has died aged 102. AP

Iris Apfel The 'accidental icon' who was an unforgettably fashionable centenarian

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Iris Apfel, arguably the world's most fashionable centenarian, has died aged 102.

The news was shared on her Instagram, where she had three million followers, and also confirmed to The New York Times by Stu Loeser, a spokesman for her estate.

Born in Queens, New York on August 29, 1921, the vivacious Apfel was taken to social and family events by her parents from a young age, where her grandmother kept her entertained by playing with scrap fabric.

In her 2018 book, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon, Apfel described how the experience would go on to shape her world.

“She opened one bag, and then another, and what I saw made my eyes pop: a gigantic bunch of little fabric remnants in all sorts of colours and patterns – there were scraps of all kinds, of all shapes and sizes,” she wrote.

“Obsessed with texture, colour, and pattern, I spent whole evenings entertaining myself this way. Looking back, it’s very clear playing this way honed by eye and gave me a very deep interest in fabric.”

This fascination with colour and pattern crystallised over the years into a quirky, and deeply personal, sense of style. Clearly enjoying the play and fun of fashion, Apfel once explained that the key to style was not to worry about what others thought and instead stay true to one’s own instincts.

“If you have to be all things to all people, you end up being nothin’ to nobody,” she wrote. “The way I dress may be different or eccentric to some who feel the need to label, but that’s of no concern to me. I don’t dress to be stared at; I dress for myself. When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else.”

Apfel’s unique take on fashion was celebrated with a dedicated exhibition at The Costume Institute in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, that ran for five months until January 2006. When the show opened, Apfel was 84.

In the book of the exhibition, The Metropolitan wrote that Apfel was “an American original in the truest sense". It added that she is one of the "most vivacious personalities in the worlds of fashion, textiles, and interior design" and over the past 40 years, she has cultivated a personal style that is "both witty and exuberantly idiosyncratic".

Noting how Apfel would boldly combine clothes that spanned different genres, eras and styles, the exhibition described how her “originality is typically revealed in her mixing of high and low fashions – Dior haute couture with flea market finds, 19th-century ecclesiastical vestments with Dolce & Gabbana lizard trousers".

In 2018, Apfel received perhaps the highest fashion accolades, when Mattel created two Barbie dolls in her likeness. Called Styled by Iris Apfel, each doll wore a typically exuberant outfit in jaunty colours and patterns. One doll wore an emerald green, jacquard suit with a baby blue, lace collar and copious costume jewellery, while the second was dressed in a teal mohair cardigan over a red pattern top and red trousers. Both dolls wore round-framed glasses and were released to coincide with Apfel’s book going on sale.

Of its decision to create the dolls, Mattel explained in a statement at the time, that Apfel embodies the "quintessential role model for Barbie with her singular style vision, entrepreneurial spirit and independence".

Aside from being a huge name in fashion, Apfel ran a successful textile and interior design business for many years. Called Old World Weavers, she ran it with her husband Carl Apfel, whom she married in 1948. One of its major contracts was to supply textiles to the White House, which it did for nine successive presidencies

Travelling to Europe twice a year to buy fabrics, the Apfels specialised in importing high-quality 17th, 18th and 19th-century reproductions, that were also sold via a boutique on 57th Street, New York. With fabrics so highly sought after, Apfel later explained she earned the nickname “First Lady of Fabric” and “Our Lady of the Cloth” while working with the White House.

However, Apfel’s unique style did not hit the mainstream until late in her life. “My first big job in beauty and fashion came when I was at the tender age of ninety,” she explained. "In conjunction with Mac, she created a limited-edition range of make-up in 2011. Of the accompanying campaign, that starred Apfel herself, she once quipped: “I’m the oldest living broad that ever graced a major cosmetics campaign.”

That same year Apfel launched her own line of signature oversized, costume jewellery. Called Rara Avis, it sold via the Home Shopping Network.

In 2014, a documentary was made about Apfel’s life and style by filmmaker Albert Maysles. Called Iris, it won Apfel legions of new fans for her indomitable spirit, and earned Maysles an Emmy nomination.

With a marriage stretching across eight decades, Apfel’s husband Carl died in 2015, aged 100. Writing about the secret to their long marriage, she once explained: "His humour and generosity were legendary. We did almost everything together. He pushed me into the limelight and then basked in my success. He got much more of a kick from the accolades I received than I did. I miss him madly.”

As for living a long and productive life, Apfel was refreshingly honest.

I never expected people to know my name or recognise my face. I never expected museums to exhibit my clothing and accessories. I never expected anything
Iris Apfel

“You start falling apart, but you just have to buck up and paste yourself together. You may not like getting older, but what’s the alternative? You’re here. Embrace it. I say put your experience to work, to give something back to other people," she wrote.

“I found that work is very healthy for me. I love what I do and I put my heart and soul into it."

She also believed that hard work, not entitlement was a vital ingredient of a successful life and career.

“I never expected people to know my name or recognise my face. I never expected museums to exhibit my clothing and accessories. I never expected anything.

“I just feel things in my gut and I do them. If something sounds exciting and interesting I do it — and then I worry about it later. Doing new things takes a lot of energy and strength. It’s very tiring to make things happen, to learn how to master a skill, to push fears aside, [and] most people would rather just go with the flow; it’s much easier. But it’s not very interesting.”

Vowing never to become what she described as a "fuddy-duddy" Apfel remained steadfastly young at heart, embracing the new and the diverse at every opportunity. Her goal was simple, she once explained: “I hold the self-proclaimed record for being the World’s Oldest Living Teenager and I intend to keep it that way.”

Updated: March 02, 2024, 5:28 AM