Connected \\ August 28, 2019

HBD, Iris

Someone, somewhere once said, “Age? That's nothing but a number.”

This statement couldn’t ring more true than it does for Mrs. Iris Barrel Apfel, born August 29, 1921. Iris, as she is affectionately known by her fans the world over, turns 98 today. But don’t let her hear you compliment her on how she’s doing great for her age, because for Iris it’s just another day at work.

Iris Apfel at Bergdorf Goodman

Iris Apfel at Bergdorf Goodman, March 15, 2018. Photography by Tiffany Sage/BFA

A force of entrepreneurial spirit and go get em’ ness, Iris excelled as an interior designer for over 40 years working alongside her husband and business partner, Carl Apfel (1914-2015). But Iris has always had a penchant for design. In an interview with House & Garden she remarked, “When I was a teenager I designed a really smashing room. I bought menswear fabrics and painted the walls black."

The Apfels already had a fully functioning interior design business when they married in 1948. But due to an increase in demand for exceptional and unique fabrics they decided to found their own company, Old World Weavers to meet their needs and those of other designers looking for exceptional fabrics that mimicked the look and feel of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The company went on to become one of the most successful fabric manufacturers in the United States. The couple worked with a number of elite clients, such as Estée Lauder and Greta Garbo but their biggest most consistent job has to have been re-designing the interiors of the United States White House for nine, yes, nine! sitting presidents.

After she and Carl sold their business to Stark (who still produces examples of Old World Weaver designs) in 1992, their lives quieted down significantly. But in 2005, when Harold Koda, the former Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to mount an exhibition of Iris’s accessories using her clothing as backdrop, she catapulted into the mainstream. Almost overnight, Iris Apfel became a muse for designers, artists and fashion enthusiasts everywhere. She was 84 years old.

Over the course of the last fifteen years, she and Carl became the subjects of a documentary Iris by Albert Maysles(Carl unfortunately passed away shortly after the release of the film in 2015) while Iris published a book Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon, signed a modeling contract with IMG and launched the brand, Rara Avis, for the Home Shopping Network. She has gone on to engage in a number of collaborations with companies such as Swarovski and Nude glassware and even had two Barbie™s created in her likeness (PEM owns one of each!) Needless to say, she’s kept busy.

Iris Apfel Barbie

Iris Apfel Barbie. Photography by Tiffany Sage/BFA


Accidental Icon

Accidental Icon. Photography by Tiffany Sage/BFA


After the MET’s exhibition closed, there was so much interest in traveling the show, Iris took it upon herself to see it to three additional venues. PEM was fortunate to be the exhibition’s last venue in 2009. What developed as the result is a beautiful relationship between museum and muse which continues today. Iris loved PEM’s installation of her collection so much that at its close, she bequeathed her entire Rare Bird of Fashion collection to the museum (90 complete ensembles), thus igniting our fashion initiative. Since then, we have benefited greatly from Iris’s generosity as she continues to donate her clothing to the museum on an annual basis (over 1000 individual pieces to date) and this past December for the first time, she enabled us to acquire pieces from Carl’s wardrobe, which was both an honor and a privilege for PEM.


Iris Apfel styles one of her ensembles

Iris Apfel styles one of her ensembles on view in the PEM installation of Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel on view at PEM from October 17, 2009 - February 7, 2010


Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel


This September, PEM is extraordinarily proud and excited to open our first permanent gallery dedicated to fashion and design. It will be a unique combination of fashion and textiles from our permanent collection intermingled with decorative and industrial design spanning across multiple departments and time periods. At the core of the installation we pose the idea that we are designing creatures and as such, we design for our bodies, our environments and our society. The gallery will boast a rotating selection of clothing worn by both Carl and Iris, the only museum in the country to do so, with their section appropriately located at the heart of our experience.  Because, really, who better than these two extraordinarily stylish and talented individuals to get visitors to see how hard work and an affinity for style and grace can shape your whole world? Come visit the new Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery.

Visiting Iris Apfel's collection? Know Before You Go


A new PEM is launching this September — a new wing, new installations and a whole new museum experience. PEM Members get to see it all first. Join or renew on our Membership page to ensure you don't miss out! Follow along and share in the excitement using #newPEM.

For more behind-the-scenes stories from PEM, sign up for What's On, our monthly e-newsletter, here.

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