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Mar 13, 2024

5 Iris Apfel lessons for dressing and living better – by forgetting rules

“You’re not pretty, and you’ll never be pretty. But it doesn’t matter. You have something much better. You have style.” Indeed, the dazzlingly dressed Iris Apfel, an American interior designer, entrepreneur, and fashion icon, epitomised style. Throughout her remarkable life of 102 years, she remained unmistakable, unconventional, and fiercely loyal to her mantra, “more is more, and less is bore.”

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A post shared by Iris Apfel (@iris.apfel)

Even at 97, she was true to her spirit of eternal teenager and boldly declared, “I want to be remembered as the oldest living teenager in the world.” Iris Apfel defied societal norms, embraced individuality, and exuded a youthful spirit that captivated generations. Her philosophy went beyond conventional fashion; it celebrated self-expression through the art of dressing. “Clothes are not mere frippery. When done properly, they can be an art form,” she famously proclaimed—a sentiment that continues to inspire countless admirers, myself included.


“When you don’t dress like everyone else, then you don’t have to think like everyone else” – Iris Apfel


The youthful Iris Apfel inherited a deep understanding of the transformative power of accessories from her mother. It was “when the dinosaurs were roaming the Earth,” she ironically reminisced. She played a significant role in popularising denim as a fashion staple in women’s wardrobes in the United States, forging an unmistakable, unconventional style that exuded an ‘exotic’ flair.

Iris Apfel’s ensembles were bold and eclectic. She could don a customised Versace shirt, personally painted by the hand of Gianni Versace himself, paired with a coat handcrafted by tribes from around the globe and accentuated with accessories borrowed from street style.

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A post shared by Iris Apfel (@iris.apfel)

Her iconic eyewear would never go unnoticed, playing a pivotal role in defining her visual identity, much like the glasses worn by the equally legendary Italian director and writer Lina Wertmüller. Yet, Iris Apfel’s spectacles were in a league of their own. Oversized, round, and commanding, they served as her trademark, allowing her to examine every detail with precision.

Iris Apfel’s flamboyant looks were undoubtedly inspiring, urging women to embrace individuality and champion personal creativity as an art form.


“The past isn’t coming back, and the future isn’t here yet! So live each day like it were your last. And one day you’Il be right” – Iris Apfel


Born in Queens in 1921, Iris Apfel embarked on a journey that followed the most conventional of academic trajectories. She pursued history at New York University and honed her craft at the art academy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Yet, Iris Apfel was never content with merely absorbing knowledge from textbooks. Her insatiable curiosity drove her to explore beyond the confines of academia, drawing her towards the vibrant world of fabrics and fashion that she experienced in her mother’s boutique since childhood.

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A post shared by Iris Apfel (@iris.apfel)

Unlike many others, Iris Apfel did not have a singular fashion icon to emulate. Instead, she crafted her style as a reflection of her life, one that grew naturally without meticulous planning.

Starting her professional journey as a budding journalist, she found herself at the heart of the industry, making photocopies at the prestigious fashion publication WWD-Women’s Wear Daily. As a wise woman, Iris Apfel often advised young aspirants to seize opportunities, urging them to stay vigilant and receptive to the opportunities around them.


“If you like to do something and your partner doesn’t, do your thing anyway! And once in a while, also do the thing your partner loves to do that you don’t” – Iris Apfel


Fate changed Iris Apfel’s life when she met Carl Apfel, her kindred spirit, with whom she would share her love for fashion and her journey.

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A post shared by Iris Apfel (@iris.apfel)

In 1950, Iris and Carl Apfel embarked on a remarkable venture, establishing the textile firm Old World Weavers. This international company specialised in reproducing antique fabrics—a pursuit ignited by Iris Apfel’s dissatisfaction with the textiles, motifs, and patterns available at the time. Their dedication drove them forward, sustaining the business until their retirement in 1992.

Driven by her enterprising spirit, Iris Apfel ventured into uncharted territories, solidifying her status as an industry legend. Her illustrious career included prestigious projects such as the White House refurbishments, where she served as an interior decorator from 1950 to 1992, working alongside nine presidents from Truman to Clinton. Additionally, she collaborated with esteemed institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, leaving an indelible mark on both the world of design and fashion.


“I don’t see anything wrong with a wrinkle. It’s kind of a badge of courage” – Iris Apfel


To keep a youthful mind, it must remain engaged. Iris Apfel, well into her 90s, began to devote herself entirely to her greatest passion: curating her outfits as living tableaux and transforming her image into a work of art. From this approach, we can gather the profound wisdom that this remarkable woman had to offer. 

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In a sense, Iris Apfel’s 90th year marked the beginning of a golden era, where the joyful iconoclast played with fashion – and collaborated with fashion and beauty brands – like never before. She forged various partnerships, such as the one with H&M in 2022, preceded by her role as the face of Magnum’s global Never Stop Playing campaign in 2019. Prior to that, she engaged in partnerships with Happy Socks, for which she designed a capsule collection, and Citroën, featuring in an advertisement for the DS3 automobile, both in 2016. Rewinding to the year 2011, when she was 90 years young, Iris Apfel ventured into a collaboration with MAC because one should never part her from matte lipstick, perfectly matched to her looks.

For Iris Apfel, life and work were a vibrant series of events that defied conventional rules. A volcano of passion and irony, she emerged as one of the most energetic personalities in the worlds of fashion, textiles, and interior design. She served as a beacon of change and strength for women of all ages.

@irisapfel Get comfortable outside of your comfort zone 🌈 #irisapfel #aginggracefully #bebold #fashiontiktok #inspiration ♬ get old but dont get boring - IRIS APFEL

Thi’s woman’s enthusiasm, visionary spirit and personal style, both witty and exuberantly idiosyncratic, caught the attention of the Costume Institute of the Met in New York, which launched an exhibition titled “Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection” in September 2005.

For The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Apfel’s originality was typically revealed in her mixing of high and low fashions—pairing Dior haute couture with flea market finds, nineteenth-century ecclesiastical vestments with Dolce & Gabbana lizard trousers. The exhibition highlighted individual accessories ranging from a Gripoix brooch to a Roger Jean-Pierre bracelet, a Mexican turquoise and hammered-silver belt to a Central Asian silver choker, and a pair of eighteenth-century paste earrings to a pair of modern plastic cuffs.

Additionally, fully accessorised ensembles from the 1950s to the present were displayed as they were originally worn and styled by Ms. Apfel. The Met was enchanted by how she combined colours, textures, and patterns without regard to period, provenance, and, ultimately, aesthetic conventions.


“You’ve got to try it. You’ve only got one trip, you have to remember that” – Iris Apfel


In her impressive journey spanning 102 years, Iris Apfel left behind a wealth of wisdom, wit, and visionary insights that are worth our attention. One of her most memorable quotes is, “It’s better to be happy than well dressed”, which encapsulates the idea of living life boldly and resonates with a cool, rebellious spirit, urging us to prioritise joy over fashion trends.



Agnese Pasquinelli 
Fashion Business, Digital Communication & Media student, 3rd year, Milan