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Documentary Spotlights Perfectly Accessorized Iris Apfel


Everyone gets dressed in the morning, but Iris Apfel has made it her art form. She is 93 now and a subject of a documentary opening around the country this month titled "Iris." NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging and caught up with the fashion icon.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: At the beginning of the film before you see Iris Apfel, you hear her. Or more precisely, you hear the clicking of her layers of necklaces and armloads of bracelets.


IRIS APFEL: I like to improvise. I always think I like to do things as though I'm playing jazz - try this, try that.

JAFFE: Under the jewelry are striking garments - sometimes designer pieces, more likely things she picked up on her travels in vintage stores or flea markets - all part of creating what she calls another mad outfit, like the one she was wearing when we met.

APFEL: Interesting, I picked the jacket up. It's reversible, and it's either from India or Pakistan. And it's comfy. It's easy to pack, and I bought it in a flea market.

JAFFE: And every outfit is topped off by her signature, and enormous, round eyeglasses.

APFEL: And everybody would say, my God, why do wear them so large? And I would say the bigger to see you (laughter). That shut them up.

JAFFE: Apfel doesn't mince words. If anything comes of living 93 years, it's knowing your own mind. So she says when she was first approached about being the subject of this film, she said no.

APFEL: I had nothing to sell, and I had no ego problems, and I was busy with a lot of other things. So I said thank you very much.

JAFFE: But filmmaker Albert Maysles called back, and eventually they met.

APFEL: And it was love at first sight, and we decided to do it.

ALBERT MAYSLES: I think that he was really impressed by how much she worked 'cause she works all the time.

JAFFE: That's Rebekah Maysles, Albert Maysles's daughter and one of the producers of the film. Her father, she says, also never stopped working.

MAYSLES: He was shooting in December - in late December.

JAFFE: Three months before he died at the age of 88.

MAYSLES: He had an amazing work ethic. I mean, he'd be the first person to be at work and the last person to leave, and he really enjoyed working so much.

JAFFE: Albert Maysles is best known for documentaries he made with his brother, David. The most famous is the 1975 film "Grey Gardens." A restored print was released just this year. David Maysles died in 1987. Albert Maysles continued making documentaries on social issues and profiles of artists and musicians, but before "Iris," nothing on fashion or style.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Straighten your hair, please.

JAFFE: The film shows the moment that Iris Apfel became what she calls a geriatric starlet. It was 10 years ago - an exhibition of her clothing and jewelry at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. She'd had a successful career in interior design and high-end textiles, but the show at the Met made her famous, and she loves it.

APFEL: I'm much busier, and I'm the kind of person that has to have more to do than is possible to do, and I love to work. I mean, how many 93-year-old Cover Girls do you know (laughter)?

JAFFE: She's modeled for accessories designer Kate Spade, jewelry designer Alexis Bittar and MAC Cosmetics. She's sold her own line of accessories on the Home Shopping Network, and she teaches the ins and outs of the fashion business to students from the University of Texas on their annual visit to New York. Now one of her main activities is giving her stuff away.


APFEL: Logistics, logistics.

JAFFE: Her collection of clothing and accessories fills up rooms in her New York and Palm Beach apartments.


APFEL: Oh, that's a gorgeous fabric. That is a fabric to die for.

JAFFE: In the film, you can see curators from the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts picking through racks of Apfel's treasures and swaddling them in tissue paper. This is a personal collection, she tells them.


APFEL: This is mine, and I didn't buy it to impress anybody. I bought it because I liked it, and I wore almost everything. Some things I wore to pieces.

JAFFE: And it's hard to part with them now. On the other hand...

APFEL: It might be nicer to see where it's going than to not know who gets it.

JAFFE: If there's one new job Apfel has been reluctant to take on, it's being a fashion role model, not that anyone could really dress the way she does anyway, but she acknowledges that she's inspired people. One woman even told her she changed her life.

APFEL: And she said I learned that if I don't have to dress like everybody else, I do not have to think like everybody else. And I thought, boy, if I could do that for a few people, I accomplished something.

JAFFE: Just by getting dressed every day like no one else can. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."