Unconventional Mentor no. 27 - Iris Apfel
"To me, the worst fashion faux pas is to look in the mirror, and not see yourself."
I’ve decided to stay in world of style and clothing for this week’s Unconventional Mentor and feature an unlikely star of fashion. At 97, Iris Apfel is an inspiring woman. Not only does she have an incredible personal style, with her trademark round glasses and copious amounts of bangles and necklaces, but she has an amazing attitude to life too. I first discovered Iris Apfel when I watched the 2014 documentary Iris and was completely taken by her from the first moment she appears on the camera.
"Life is gray and dull; you might as well have a little fun when you dress."
Iris was born in Queens, New York in 1921 to parents who owned a glass and mirror business and a fashion boutique, so is it any wonder that she grew up to be interested in fashion. She married her husband Carl Apfel in 1948 and they remained together for the rest of his life, he sadly died in August 2015 not long after the documentary about her was released. They are the cutest couple and a shining example of a supportive and lasting relationship. They ran a textile business together from the 1950s until the 1990s and amongst their many clients were a whole host of presidents when they were doing work at The White House. Well known in the fashion and textiles industry (she had a costume exhibition at The Met in New York in 2005), it wasn’t until 2014 when Albert Maysles made the documentary Iris, that she became a worldwide star. In the last 10 years, from her late 80s onwards, she has had a Barbie Doll made in her image (the oldest person to do so) launched a range of lipsticks with MAC, been part of the window display at Bergdorf Goodman, and this year, Iris has signed a modelling contract with the global agency IMG.
“I'm just inspired by being alive and breathing and meeting people and talking to people and doing things and absorbing what's happening. I think if more people did that, there would be better fashion. "
As a society we are obsessed with youth, we celebrate the achievements of the young with 30 under 30 lists and have goals and milestones we are expected to hit by the time we are 25, 30, 40… The achievements of someone young are not to be dismissed because of their age, there are some amazing people doing incredible work out there, but the focus we have on age and success together is damaging. The pressure that it puts on people can be crushing, which is why it is so refreshing to have someone in their nineties be the star of a documentary and to be continuing to develop new projects well into their 90s. What the documentary shows to me, along with another documentary Advanced Style by Ari Seth Cohen, is that we have our whole lives to figure things out and not to be so focused on the age at which we are doing things. I am not one of those people who had everything figured out at 25. For one reason or another I feel that I only really started to feel comfortable in my own skin once I turned 30 and even in the last 12 months, I have found more confidence than I have ever had. I don’t want to look at someone who is the same age as me and compare notes on what I have or haven’t achieved, I want to look at people who are 50 years older than me and see what is possible.
"Fashion you can buy, but style you possess. The key to style is learning who you are, which takes years. There's no how-to road map to style. It's about self-expression and, above all, attitude."
Whilst she has an incredible eye for clothes and accessories it isn’t this that inspires me most about Iris, it is her approach to life. She sees the clothes she wears as an extension of herself, as a way to express who she is as a person and to tell the world about herself. In interviews she comes across as incredibly self-assured and genuinely excited to be sharing her story with people. She comes across as a person who has grasped every opportunity that has come her way and made the most out of every situation. Whether this is turning a scrap of beautiful fabric into a new outfit or saying yes to offers of museum exhibitions and collaborations. Speaking after her husband died, she said “He really pushed me into this. So I decided I wouldn’t just stay at home and cry all day. I’m working harder than I ever did in my life.”
Iris Apfel is continuing to work on new projects. This month she launched a new collaboration with the luxury glassware brand Nude, and I hope that she continues to work and inspired us all for many years to come
Mentor advice: Cultivate your own sense of style
The advice that I take from Iris Apfel is to cultivate your own sense of style. And by style, I don’t just mean the clothes that you wear, it is so much more than that. It is the attitude that you take to life, how you behave towards other people and generally how you show up in the world. The clothes that you wear are a reflection of who you are, not the things that make you. The quote from Iris Apfel, "To me, the worst fashion faux pas is to look in the mirror, and not see yourself" shows how important it is to work on your inner self of sense, rather than focusing on what you look like on the outside. I know that I am happier at work than I have ever been because I know who I am as a person and how I want to show up in the world. I absolutely want to do a good job on all of the projects I am involved in, but for me the most important thing is that I empower and enable the team around me. If my team tell me that they enjoy coming to work because they feel rewarded, challenged and that they are working towards a meaningful goal then I know and I am doing the right things. I also know that a statement necklace does wonders for my confidence, so I might have to get a bit more adventurous this year and think more Iris when I go shopping.
To find out more about what Iris Apfel is up to, be sure to follow her on Instagram