America’s coolest great aunt.
There is fashion and there is style. Anybody can buy fashion at the mall, but style is trickier. It’s an art, and as in any art form, a handful of geniuses manage to transcend the materials to make something incomprehensibly different. Ninety-three-year-old Iris Apfel is a rare genius of style. Her genius is in accessorizing — seeing the myriad ways fabric and beads can work together.
Genius may sound like a strong word, but not everyone has the Metropolitan Museum of Art make an exhibit out of her closet. Not everyone teaches college courses to women 70 years her junior about how to put wardrobes together. And not everyone gets filmmaking legend Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) to devote a documentary to the quirky way she mixes the “cheap with the chic.”
In Iris, Maysles — who died in March at the age of 88 — takes us on a tour of Apfel’s giddy, busy life — a routine that would exhaust people half her age. Her eyes are wide open behind her goggly glasses as she searches for treasure in high-end boutiques and suburban flea markets, looking for possibility in trendy clothes and priest’s vestments alike.
If you’re wondering why you should bother watching a movie about a woman who is mildly famous for her enormous collection of bracelets, don’t be scared off. The woman is fascinating, funny and charmingly philosophical. Maysles’ famously intimate style of camera work mixes with Apfel’s inviting demeanor to make it seem like we are hanging out with America’s coolest great aunt.
We only get glimpses into her pre-retirement life as an interior designer. We see a bit of 16mm footage of her travels in exotic markets and photos of her with various First Ladies. (She helped nine presidents redecorate the White House.) She talks about how difficult it was for a woman to get a pair of jeans in the 1940s. But, it is obvious that much has been left out. The movie clocks in at a lean 80 minutes, so Maysles could have spent more time on her past, such as her time in Madison. She is a UW art school alumna, class of ’43.
This is a forgivable flaw because Apfel’s present life is fascinating enough. The documentary could have just shown her chatting with her adoring 99-year old husband and I would have been satisfied. But we also get to see her process of using accessories as wearable sculptures: She places one ugly necklace atop an uglier necklace, over a gaudy shirt paired with a questionable skirt. Somehow, it all comes together as a beautiful whole — and for a moment, the universe makes sense. If that is not artistic genius, what is?