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Iris Apfel—New York socialite, fashionista, and wearer of giant round glasses—has never been in an Old Navy commercial. But it’s not only easy to confuse Apfel, the subject of Iris, with the similarly bespectacled senior who starred in those late 1990s ads, it seems likely that the 93-year-old wouldn’t consider such shilling to be beneath her.
Iris is the penultimate film of acclaimed documentarian Albert Maysles, who died in March at the age of 88. Between the director, the icon, and Apfel’s now-101-year-old husband, Carl, the doc makes it clear that age ain’t nothing but a number.
Whether you worship the catwalk or live in PajamaJeans®, you’ll fall in love with Apfel within minutes of the film’s opening. She’s modeling some outfits—which often feature more jewelry than clothing—and bemoaning the loss of individuality in modern society. “There’s so much sameness… I hate it,” Apfel says. After a beat, she concludes with, “Whatever.” Cue title, which is appropriately colorful and patterned.
Apfel is shown being drooled over by designers, lauded for her sharp eye for unique looks that pop. (Black “isn’t fashion,” she says. “It’s a uniform.”) Others outside the world of fashion, however, may find her trademark baubles upon baubles and wild prints to be, well, “interesting.” Or “fun.” OK—they’re gaudy.
But it’s difficult to feel distaste toward an elderly woman who still puts effort into dressing with flair and claims that a $4 flea-market find gives her more of a “kick” than a visit to Harry Winston. Throughout the film’s just-right 83 minutes, Maysles follows Apfel as she does indeed shop for junk, haggling with sellers and complimenting just about everything she sees.
Apfel wasn’t very well-known (and arguably still isn’t) until the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art needed a last-minute show in 2005 and turned to her to fill its scheduling hole. Since then, she’s been invited to speak at fashion events, donate more of her personal collection of clothes and doodads for other installations, and now is a visiting professor at the University of Texas.
Iris primarily entertains not by its portrayal of Apfel’s significant late-life achievements—though they are certainly impressive—but by a personality that leaps off the screen. Apfel is lively, warm, gracious, and incredibly funny, always ready with quips that tend toward the self-deprecating, such as, “This goes back to when dinosaurs were roaming the earth” while looking through her wedding album.
The film is about fashion and design, yes. But it feels like Maysles intended Iris to fundamentally serve as a guide to how to enjoy your own time roaming the earth. Apfel and her husband of 67 years aren’t ones to sit at home, though health issues can of course slow them down. And they know what’s worth taking seriously. (The answer: not much.)
At the end of Iris, Apfel remarks that attractive people rarely know how to get by when their looks fade, but it’s her attitude about the matter that’s the point. “I don’t happen to like ‘pretty,’” she says. “Most of the world isn’t with me, but I don’t care.”
Iris opened Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.