Connected \\ August 31, 2021

A Century of Style: Fashion icon Iris Apfel at 100

More than 10 years ago, PEM presented Rare Bird of Fashion, an exhibition devoted to Iris Apfel's bold style, and which some of you readers may have been lucky enough to have experienced in person. The legacy of that show still resonates in the museum’s halls today because barely a day goes by where we do not hear Iris's name mentioned from the lips of one of our visitors. Iris — the international style icon, former interior decorator of the White House (serving nine administrations), collector, businesswoman and the subject of a 2016 documentary by Albert Maysles.

Iris Apfel and Isaac Mizrahi in a program at PEM in 2009. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Iris Apfel and Isaac Mizrahi in a program at PEM in 2009. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


There is enormous respect and downright affection for Iris that is woven into the tapestry that is PEM, so when we heard that she was to celebrate her 100th birthday this month, (she rocketed into this world on August 29, 1921) we could not let it go by without noting the occasion in some way. In conjunction with a series of events, we organized a pop-up merchandising selection in the Museum Shop, and Iris made it easy. Because during the lockdown, when many of us were brushing up on our culinary skills or searching our floors for that missing jigsaw puzzle piece, Iris was at work. She has been busy partnering with companies to launch new lines of items and was very involved with each project to ensure that her signature style was represented. Many of these lines launched in August to coincide with her centennial, and Iris gave PEM’s shop the inside track to offer our visitors some of the fruits of her labors.

Zenni Optical has collaborated with Iris to create a signature line of eyeglasses, prescriptions, blue blockers and readers. Zenni is almost exclusively available online, so the PEM Shop will be one of only a few brick-and-mortar retailers to offer their glasses. Look for these products in the shop in October, along with the date for a scheduled trunk show.

Iris has also partnered with Fabricut, the company that creates beautifully lush fabrics. PEM Shop will carry a few items made from the textiles, but we are also partnering with Zimman’s in Lynn, which can supply various styles by the yard. Iris painstakingly coordinated all the patterns, some of which you will be able to see in our Essex Street show windows.

This chair and fabric from Fabricut will be part of a window installation at 179 Essex Street, dedicated to Iris Apfel.

This chair and fabric from Fabricut will be part of a window installation at 179 Essex Street, dedicated to Iris Apfel.


Also in the lineup are some makeup creations that Iris developed with Edward Bess. The company has created a bundle of lipstick and powder, which will be available in the shop.

Iris Apfel book cover


And finally, this children's book from the popular and empowering series Little People, Big Dreams, by Quarto, will be released soon. Written by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara and illustrated by Kristen Barnhart, the book includes a biographical timeline of Iris’s long life, tracing her roots from an only child growing up in Queens to the fashion icon she is today.

We also asked Iris for permission to create a few exceptional items exclusive to the PEM shop to mark the occasion. Over the years, I have worked with a company in the United Kingdom called St. Nicolas, which makes handmade ornaments based on historical figures. We rendered about eight or so figures of Iris and her husband, Carl, inspired by the fashions in the PEM collection, and presented them to her for approval. She loved them as much as we did.

PEM-exclusive ornaments created to honor Carl and Iris Apfel.

PEM-exclusive ornaments created to honor Carl and Iris Apfel.


We will be releasing the ornaments over the remainder of this year. St. Nicolas also creates commemorative edition roundels to celebrate events with the British royal family, as they did for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, so we thought Iris deserves the royal treatment.

Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee Harry & Meghan ornament

We created these pieces to mark her special birthday using the idea of the famous ostrich bar that was on view in the Rare Bird of Fashion show. (The century of style pieces are very limited, so scoop them up).

The century of style Iris Apfel ornament

Of course, we will have more in store to celebrate the big event as Iris has chosen to offer some jewelry pieces from her private collection and some unique coats that she designed. There will be public events this fall, including a virtual conversation between Iris and designer Tommy Hilfiger. And don't forget to visit the permanent Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery of Fashion and Design on the third floor that displays a vast selection of pieces donated by the couple. And here is a tip, the installation is routinely rotated, so you will see different outfits throughout the year.

Mannequins in the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel gallery get styled by Jen Hache for the birthday celebration. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


Iris and the late Carl Apfel in the galleries at PEM in 2009. Photo by Walter Silver

Iris and the late Carl Apfel in the galleries at PEM in 2009. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM.


So thank you, Iris Apfel, for your ongoing generosity, for encouraging us to develop our own bold style, inspiring us never to stop creating, and for letting us be part of your celebrations.

Happy Birthday!

Iris Apfel

Photo by Jill Jackman.


Stay tuned for details of an Iris Apfel trunk show in our shop this fall, as well as virtual programming happening in her honor. Also this fall, stop by the windows at 178 Essex Street to see an Iris- inspired installation. Shop our PEM-exclusive Iris Apfel ornaments created to honor the fashion icon. See her singular style on view in the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery of Fashion & Design.

TOP IMAGE: Photo by Ruvén Afanador.

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