Iris Apfel, Eye-Catcher With a Kaleidoscopic Wardrobe, Dies at 102

Iris Apfel, a New York society matron and interior designer who late in life knocked the socks off the straight fashion world with a brash bohemian style that mixed hippie vintage and haute couture, found treasures in flea markets and reveled in contradictions, died on Friday in her home in Palm Beach, Fla. She was 102.

Stu Loeser, a spokesman for her estate, confirmed her death.

Calling herself a “geriatric starlet,” Ms. Apfel in her 80s and 90s set trends with clamorous, irreverent ensembles: a boxy, multicolored Bill Blass jacket with tinted Hopi dancing skirt and hairy goatskin boots; a fluffy evening coat of red and green rooster feathers with suede pants slashed to the knees; a rose angora sweater set and 19th-century Chinese brocade panel skirt.

Her willfully disjunctive accessories might be a jeweled mask or a necklace of jade beads swinging to the knees, a tin handbag shaped like a terrier, furry scarves wrapped around her neck like a pile of pythons and, nearly always, her signature armloads of bangles and owlish spectacles, big as saucers.

She was tallish and thin, with a short crop of silver hair and scarlet gashes on lips and fingernails, a little old lady among the models at Fashion Week and an authentic Noo Yawk haggler at a shop in Harlem or a souk in Tunisia. Many called her gaudy, kooky, bizarre, even vulgar in get-ups like a cape of gold-tipped duck feathers and thigh-high fuchsia satin Yves Saint Laurent boots.

But she had a point.

“When you don’t dress like everybody else, you don’t have to think like everybody else,” Ms. Apfel told Ruth La Ferla of The New York Times in 2011 as she was about to go on national television, selling scarves, bangles and beads of her own design on the Home Shopping Network.

For decades starting in the 1950s, Ms. Apfel designed interiors for private clients like Greta Garbo and Estée Lauder. With her husband, Carl Apfel, she founded Old World Weavers, which sold and restored textiles, including many at the White House. The Apfels scoured museums and bazaars around the world for textile designs. She also added regularly to her huge wardrobe collections at her Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan.

The Apfels sold their company and retired in 1992, but she continued to act as a consultant to the firm and to be the otherworldly woman-about-town, a soaring free spirit known in society and to the fashion cognoscenti for ignoring the dictates of the runway in favor of her own artfully clashing styles.

In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, facing the cancellation of an exhibition and looking for a last-minute replacement, approached her with an audacious proposition: to mount an exhibition of her clothes. The Met had exhibited pieces from designer collections before, but never an individual’s wardrobe.

The show, “Rara Avis: Selections From the Iris Apfel Collection,” assembled 82 ensembles and 300 accessories in the museum’s Costume Institute: Bakelite bangles from the 1930s, Tibetan cuff bracelets, a tiger-pattern travel outfit of her own design, a husky coat of Mongolian lamb and squirrel from Fendi displayed on a mannequin crawling from an igloo.

“This is no collection,” Ms. Apfel said. “It’s a raid on my closet. I always thought to show at the Met you had to be dead.”

Harold Koda, the curator who helped organize the show, said: “To dress this way, there has to be an educated visual sense. It takes courage. I keep thinking, Don’t attempt this at home.”

Soon the show was the talk of the town. Under an avalanche of publicity, students of art, design and social history crowded into the galleries with the limousine society crowd, busloads of tourists and classes of chattering children. Carla Fendi, Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld took it in.

“A rare look in a museum at a fashion arbiter, not a designer,” The Times called the show, adding, “Her approach is so inventive and brash that its like has rarely been glimpsed since Diana Vreeland put her exotic stamp on the pages of Vogue.”

Almost overnight, Ms. Apfel became an international celebrity of pop fashion — featured in magazine spreads and ad campaigns, toasted in columns and blogs, sought after for lectures and seminars. The University of Texas made her a visiting professor. The Met show traveled to other museums, and, like a rock star, she attracted thousands to her public appearances.

Mobs showed up for her bookstore signings after the 2007 publication of “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” a coffee-table book of her wardrobe and jewelry by the photographer Eric Boman.

“Iris,” an Albert Maysles documentary, opened at the New York Film Festival in 2014, and in 2015 it was seen by enthusiastic movie audiences in America and Britain. The movie critic Manohla Dargis of The Times called it an “insistent rejection of monocultural conformity” and “a delightful eye-opener about life, love, statement eyeglasses, bracelets the size of tricycle tires and the art of making the grandest of entrances.”

In 2016, Ms. Apfel was seen in a television commercial for the French car DS 3, became the face of the Australian brand Blue Illusion, and began a collaboration with the start-up WiseWear. A year later, Mattel created a one-of-a-kind Barbie doll in her image. It was not for sale.

In 2018, she published “Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon,” an autobiographical collection of musings, anecdotes and observations on life and style. As she turned 97 in 2019, she signed a modeling contract with the global agency IMG.

Iris Barrel was born on Aug. 29, 1921, in Astoria, Queens, the only child of Samuel Barrel, who owned a glass and mirror business, and his Russian-born wife, Sadye, who owned a fashion boutique. Iris studied art history at New York University and art at the University of Wisconsin, worked for Women’s Wear Daily, apprenticed with the interior designer Elinor Johnson, and opened her own design firm.

She married Carl Apfel, an advertising executive, in 1948. They had no children. Her husband died in 2015 at the age of 100.

Their Old World Weavers had restored curtains, furniture, draperies and other fabrics at the White House for nine presidents, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton.

Ms. Apfel’s apartments in New York and Palm Beach were full of furnishings and tchotchkes that might have come from a Luis Buñuel film: porcelain cats, plush toys, statuary, ornate vases, gilt mirrors, fake fruit, stuffed parrots, paintings by Velázquez and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, a mannequin on an ostrich.

The fashion designer Duro Olowu told The Guardian in 2010 that Ms. Apfel’s work had a universal quality. “It’s not a trend,” he said. “It appeals to a certain kind of joy in everybody.”

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