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Wardrobe of a Lifetime
Iris Barrel Apfel's eclectic embellishments.
By Diana Mehl   
Iris Barrel Apfel
Iris Barrel Apfel.
House of Lanvin Gown, Apfel Collection
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, Apfel Collection
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.
Jet Set Outfit, Apfel Collection
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, Apfel Collection
Bear-claw necklace, Navajo, late 1930s/early 1940s, silver/turquoise/onyx/bear claws.

 Rara Avis: Selections
 from the Iris Barrel
 Apfel Collection

September 13, 2005 – January 22, 2006
Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute

Iris 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 on it.

    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 chic.

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 glove-leather boots.

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 Met!

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 and humor.

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!

What are you buying now?
Jeans. What else would you suggest for the world's oldest living teenager?

Photo Credit:
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Karin Willis
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