Everyone from Kanye West to Jenna Lyons [J. Crew’s creative director] adores Iris Apfel. Fashion industry powerhouses make small cameos explaining their relationships with her in Albert Maysles’ documentary. It’s hard to find the 93 year old Apfel, with her iconic round sunglasses and layers and layers of jewelry, anything but charming. As someone who grew up fashion-obsessed and close to New York City, I idolize Apfel, and was fascinated by Maysles’ documentary.
The documentary follows Apfel and her husband, Carl, for almost a year of their lives. They travel all around New York City and Florida, go shopping, spend time at their remarkable Park Avenue apartment, go through countless outfit changes, and celebrate Carl’s 100th birthday on camera.
Iris and Carl’s relationship creates some of the sweetest parts of the documentary. Their marriage has existed for almost 70 years and they still hold hands, look at each other with love, and make each other laugh. In other words, they act like the perfect couple. When Maysles asks Iris why she married Carl she says, “I figured he was cool, he was cuddly, and he cooked Chinese, so I couldn’t do any better,” while Carl sits on a couch and smiles.
Another important part of the documentary is Apfel’s love of fashion. Apfel views fashion as art; she is shown carefully choosing her bright outfits and jewelry from her huge white closet packed with almost a century of clothing. The scenes of Apfel getting dressed in the morning are filmed carefully, in an almost ethereal natural light.
Apfel is like the adorable eccentric grandma everyone would love to have. She is at ease and approachable on camera, telling amazing anecdotes from her long life. Apfel delves into the story of her extensive career as an interior designer. She has been so influential to the interior design world: she founded a major textile firm, decorated the White House for nine presidents, and is known as a fashion icon. She talks about the 2005 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit which featured her closet, not as a personal achievement, but as a mass celebration of art and fashion separate from her.
“Iris” could have easily turned into a twee documentary about an elderly woman’s perfect life, but in the hands of Maysles, it becomes much more. Maysles brings a sense of nostalgia to the documentary. Even though Apfel’s life is perfect and she loves it, she still misses her past days as a business owner and designer.
There is also something darker behind the documentary, which comes from the ages of everyone involved. Maysles was 88 at the time of filming and Apfel is 93; they move slowly and openly admit that they can’t do as much as they used to, which disappoints them. Even though this documentary mainly is celebrating Apfel’s career, it’s also bringing attention to the difficulties of aging.
Ultimately this is a visually stunning documentary about the life of one of New York’s most interesting women. Maysles’ masterful directing brings an almost subdued lens to the happiness and eccentricity of Apfel’s life, and keeps the film grounded in reality while letting Apfel’s wisdom shine through. My only true complaint about the film is that it feels too short. Iris and Carl Apfel have so many interesting stories and anecdotes, and are so fun to follow in daily life, that it seems almost unfair to condense it into just an 80 minute long documentary.
Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures