COLLECTORS WITH PANACHE
of a Lifetime
Iris Barrel Apfel's eclectic embellishments.
Iris Barrel Apfel.
House of Lanvin gown, circa 1985, gold, brown and
gray silk taffeta. Bhutan arm bracelet, late 19th
century, silver and amber. Tibet cuff bracelet, late
19th century, silver, amber, coral and turquoise.
Tibet necklaces, early 20th century, silver, amber,
coral and turquoise.
Geoffrey Beene jumpsuit, circa 1982, orange wool.
Native American brooch, 1980s, silver and turquoise.
Native American belt, 1980s, silver and turquoise.
Italian cuffs, 1970s, silver and ceramic.
Mid-century “jet set” outfit, circa 1965.
Coat, skirt, boots and travel bag designed by Iris
Barrel Apfel. Silk pile Old World Weavers tiger velvet,
handwoven on 18th-century looms.
Bear-claw necklace, Navajo, late 1930s/early 1940s,
from the Iris Barrel
13, 2005 – January 22, 2006
Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute
Apfel is a woman who has always been ahead of her time.
More than 50 years ago as an interior designer looking
for fine traditional silk-woven fabrics, she recognized
an opportunity and, along with her husband, Carl, founded
Old World Weavers. She built it into one of the
most prestigious brands in the world of textiles and interior
design and the authority on antique textile reproductions.
Thirteen years ago it was sold to Stark Carpets Co., and
the Apfels have remained as consultants. The exquisite
workmanship and exclusive fabric designs drew the attention
of the most discriminating clients – including Greta
Garbo, Marjorie Merriweather Post and Estée Lauder.
Old World Weavers was also awarded many important restoration
projects, which included work at the White House, the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Flagler
Museum in West Palm Beach.
Apfel has been an influential pioneer
in the world of fashion as well, boldly linking high-
and low-end and melding flea market finds with haute couture
long before doing so was considered fashionable. Her richly
layered combinations of colors, textures and patterns
show her remarkable panache.
Apfel's highly original personal
style will be celebrated this September in an exhibition
at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute –
Rara Avis: Selections From the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection
– in what will be a new focus for the Institute:
the collection and exhibition of accessories.
In an interview with Panache,
Apfel reminisces about her most fabulous finds.
You really are an original. How would you describe
your remarkable personal style?
I think dressing up or down should be a creative experience.
Exciting. Fun. Whenever possible, it's really great
to start with a marvelously cut designer piece and build
For me the key to personal style lies
in accessories. My friends tell me that my oversized glasses
and my pairs of bracelets have become my unwritten signature.
I have amassed an enormous “collection” of
bags, belts, bangles and beads without which I would be
lost. One can change the entire look of an outfit by substituting
one accessory for another. I love objects from different
worlds, different eras, combined my way. Never uptight,
achieving – hopefully – a kind of throwaway
Which outfits have you put together that truly
reflect your style?
A cowhide apron worn with a black satin jumpsuit. Antique
Georgian jewelry mixed with flea market bangles and beads.
A haute couture Jean-Louis Scherrer black-feather coat
– the tips painted in gold – worn over Roberto
Cavalli leopard-print jeans, and leopard-fur loafers.
The outfit topped off with some ethnic jewelry. A canvas
dance skirt from a Southwest pueblo edged in tinkling
tin bells worn with different couture jackets. A silver-fox
coat belted with a beaded African wall hanging, and red
woolen boots with embroidered trim from Etro. A Chi'ng
dynasty exquisitely hand-embroidered silk wedding skirt
with an English cashmere sweater and Italian handmade
When did you start to collect and how did you
build your collection?
I don't collect per se. My so-called “collection”
is my wardrobe. It's a series of pieces I've
accumulated over these many years. I love a timeless look,
and I think if you develop your own style it's not
a problem – at least it hasn't been for me.
I can mix something I bought last week with something
I've hoarded for 30 years. I don't follow
trends or the hottest fashion. I buy what I like and my
tastes are quite catholic – haute couture to street
fashion. Pieces that are Zen-simple or madly baroque.
I love ethnic as well as contemporary. I'm fond
of serious and adore amusing. I try to make all these
things work together. I've never bothered to analyze
how this happens, but Harold Koda [the curator of the
Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute] says there
is an underlying aesthetic to all this madness. At this
point – with all the curatorial poking about –
I feel that my life is an open armoire! I do have a lot
of stuff. After all, I've been shopping for myself
since I was 12. I've been approximately the same
size since high school. While my waistline hasn't
expanded, my closet has! I'm constantly donating
to charities and thrift shops. But one doesn't give
away the very special pieces or the haute couture unless
it all would be going to the Costume Institute of the
What is going to be included in the show?
The curators are still making changes so I'm not
absolutely sure. A few things I hope are cast in stone.
Years ago the ASID (American Society
of Interior Designers) did an annual fashion show/luncheon
where the leading designers of the day were asked to create
an outfit of their choice from a given upholstery house.
After a few years, the great James Galanos agreed only
if he could use Old World Weavers. He created a spectacular
evening outfit that is still very current. It is a floor-length
coachman's coat of a spolinato (handwoven linen
background designed with huge woolen flowers that look
as though they were embroidered). It is collared and cuffed
and half-belted with Russian sable and completely lined
with a heavy Chinese lacquer-colored Doupioni silk and
is worn over a long “deceptively simple” very
sleek dress. It was the centerpiece of his retrospective
show at FIT and, hopefully, will now be shown again.
There will be a madly multicolored
feather jacket by Nina Ricci combined with Moschino brilliant-red-suede
pants that are slashed ribbonlike from the knees down.
Then, a three-tiered taffeta ball gown from Lanvin worn
with heavy amber Tibetan necklaces and heavier “killer”
bracelets. A Tunisian wedding dress. A fabulous coat by
Ferré for Dior made of black-and-white Tibetan
lamb impregnated with feathers. And Galliano for Dior
trousers with wolfskin from the knees down that makes
me look as though I'm wearing high fur boots.
You design your own clothes as well?
In the early ‘50s my husband, Carl, and I began
a business called Old World Weavers. We specialized in
weaving exact reproductions of antique-period fabric.
This all started with some samples in a suitcase and,
happily, we just grew. Our clients were the rich and famous
and we did tons of historic restoration projects –
major work in the White House during the combined reigns
of eight presidents. Because of business, we spent almost
three months every year traveling the world to find offbeat
classic-period textile designs and to locate specific
mills with specialized techniques to properly replicate
them. They were exciting and challenging years.
I've always been extremely grateful
to have traveled during that period and to have experienced
the last of the Old World. One was still able to find
highly skilled artisans to carry out any crackpot idea
that dropped into one's head. And surely they did
– and often!
I guess I've been a “closet designer”
who could never sew or cut. But I had some ideas and I
could sketch. God knows I had the fabric and the trimmings.
It isn't easy to design an outfit, and trying my
hand at it gave me an everlasting respect for the artistry
and craftsmanship of the true couturier.
Nevertheless I had my fling with dressmakers,
bagmakers and shoemakers. Whenever someone would admire
the fabric on a finished piece and ask where it came from,
my husband would say, “Thank you – I just
shot my couch!”
Who are some of your favorite designers?
Ralph Rucci, a wonderful, special friend of mine who is
dressing me for the show's opening party. When he
suggested doing it, I felt like I'd died and gone
to heaven! I also favor Gianfranco Ferré, Geoffrey
Beene, Galanos and Norell. I guess they're all part
of one beautifully cut tradition. I love clothes that
look deceptively simple. They are really very complicated
and very architectural. Actually Ferré studied
to be an architect. All these guys really know what they
are doing. They know how to sketch, cut and sew. Rucci's
clothes and Galanos's clothes are sometimes more
beautiful inside than outside. They are both detail-driven.
I love amusing clothes as well. I find that Moschino,
Gaultier, Dolce & Gabbana and Krizia have great style
Color is very important to you.
Yes, but I also love gray – from pearl to charcoal.
Years back I was particularly fond of a Tibetan gray-lamb
hat and coat. I especially liked it because I had gray
hair at the time and you couldn't see where I ended
and the coat began!
Do you have any favorite colors?
In the right tonalities I never met a color I didn't
like. I love turquoise and reds. I'm not too keen
on pastels. They make me look wimpy. I like black and
white together a lot – it's very crisp.
You also have a fabulous jewelry collection.
Thank you. I don't know how fabulous, but it is
large and insane. Mostly faux with a few real pieces.
Eighteenth-century antique to plastic trash. Most of the
pieces I found years ago … in Greenwich Village
way back in the ‘30s, and, later, in the London
street markets, the Sablon in Brussels and the Puce and
shops in Paris. In the bazaars and souks in Istanbul,
Cairo, Tunis and Marrakesh. During the ‘50s I was
in Paris quite often on business and took a fancy to haute
couture faux jewelry. I eventually met the great Parisian
creators Gripoix and Roger Jean-Pierre who made all the
faux jewels for Chanel, St. Laurent, Balenciaga, Givenchy,
et cetera. I was invited to their ateliers and we became
friends. Often I'd stumble upon an antique piece
and ask if it could be copied for me in paste. I'd
supply a picture or a sketch and voila! I have some very
interesting pieces that are one-of-a-kind. Or I'd
buy the jewelry they designed. At first people thought
I was mad to spend the money I did on what they considered
junk. But I thought the pieces were very artistic and
beautifully made. Now they are highly prized. I'm
not too fond of real jewelry. I know it's very beautiful
and very valuable but I never had a yen for it. (What
a lucky man my husband is!) My stuff is much more dramatic
and much more fun.
What are some of your favorite pieces of jewelry?
My turquoise beads from the Southwestern pueblos. A 19th-century
Venetian Blackamoor made by the Venetian firm of Codognato.
Carl bought it for me when we sold Old World Weavers to
Stark Carpets 13 years ago. A Navajo silver-and-turquoise,
very large bolo in the form of a Yei figure (Navajo deity).
Any of my heavy silver cuffs – Native American,
Indian, Afghani, Russian. I favor pairs of bracelets.
A necklace that is in reality a set of Bakelite color
chips. A Near Eastern slingshot that poses as a necklace.
I especially love ethnic jewelry of all kinds. It has
a kind of integrity. It's so organic and it speaks
to me, and it is often oversized. I'm crazy about
coral, amber and silver as well as turquoise. Many cultures
totally unrelated to one another use the stones in different
ways. I love to pile on jewelry piece upon piece as the
old Native American chiefs did, like the Tibetan ladies
do when they go out. If you haven't noticed, I like
BIG. Discrete jewelry is not for me.
What other types of collections do you have?
Museum-quality Ch'ing dynasty costume and textiles.
Native American arts and crafts, including Kachina dolls.
A large collection of French 19th-century opaline. Antique
textiles. A small collection of dog paintings, etc.
What do you look for?
I'm a hopeless romantic. I buy things because I
fall in love with them. I never buy anything just because
it's valuable. My husband used to say I look at
a piece of fabric and listen to the threads. It tells
me a story. It sings me a song. I have to get a physical
reaction when I buy something. A coup de foudre
– a bolt of lightning. It's fun to get knocked
out that way!
What is your shopping philosophy?
I do have a dominant shopping gene but, unlike a reasonable
person, I never plan for what I need each season. I enjoy
the thrill of the hunt, the discovery and the endless
search. In another creation I was, perhaps, a hunter/gatherer.
After all these years, I've learned that it's
not the end result or finished product but the process
I most enjoy. If my experimenting, searching and juxtaposing
turns into an exciting outfit well, it's just a
big fat bonus!
are you buying now?
Jeans. What else would you suggest for the world's
oldest living teenager?
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Karin