Iris Barrell Apfel was born August 29, 1921 in Astoria, Queens, to Sadye Barrell, a lawyer and fashion boutique owner, and importer Samuel Barrell. From the time she was a child, individual style in all of its iterations was Iris’s passion. She followed her father to jobs at Elsie de Wolfe’s legendary interior design studio and helped her mother style store windows. After studying fine arts at New York University, Iris landed her first full-time job at Women’s Wear Daily, eventually going on to apprentice with interior designer Elinor Johnson, and then beginning her own interior design business. In 1948, she married Carl Patel, an advertising executive, and together they founded Old World Weavers, manufacturing fabrics Iris imagined but could not find for her many design projects. From 1948 until 1992, Carl and Iris helped restore the fabrics of most major museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the White House. As they traveled the world, Iris became a dogged collector of textiles she transformed into clothing and artifacts she turned into jewelry. Iris was increasingly admired for her fearless and original style — while other women were dressing in head-to-toe designers, Iris combined haute couture tops with pants fashioned from church vestments and tribal jewelry. She mixed designer pieces with flea market finds, transforming dressing to improvised artistic expression. In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum approached Iris about sharing her collections. The show, “Iris Patel, Rare Bird of Fashion,” showcasing Iris’s irreverent style, became a runaway hit and travelled the country making Iris, at age of 87, a self-described “geriatric starlet.” Iris’s broad appeal landed her on the pages of publications as diverse as European editions of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar as well as PAPER and Dazed and Confused. Along the way, becoming a favorite model of Bruce Weber. She appeared in a Coach Ads, designed a sell-outline for MAC Cosmetics and now sells clothing and accessories on HSN. She is a visiting professor of School of Human Ecology at The University of Texas, where selected students join her annually for a weeklong tour of the fashion industry that involves every aspect of the business.
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The latest film from legendary documentarian Albert Maysles (GREY GARDENS, GIMME SHELTER), IRIS pairs the late 88-year-old filmmaker (who passed away on March 5) with Iris Apfel, the quick-witted, flamboyantly dressed 93-year-old style maven who has had an outsized presence on the New York fashion scene for decades.
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