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Two legends team up for engaging look at a trendsetter’s life and her surprising views of contemporary couture and culture
“Iris serves as a spirited, often dazzling primer in how to fight the dying of the light and feel fabulous while doing it.” — Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post
Iris Apfel, 94, is more than a fashion and design icon. She’s the embodiment of ageless grace, enthusiasm and candor—with a sense of humor to match.
All of those facets of her personality are at center stage in Iris, the penultimate documentary by legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles, which premieres on POV (Point of View) on Monday, Aug. 1, 2016 at 10 p.m. on PBS. (Check local listings.) American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a 2013 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
The film is the result of collaboration among cultural royalty. Iris, a born and bred New Yorker, is one of the world’s best-known fashion and design innovators and educators, while The New York Times called Albert “the dean of documentary filmmakers.”
Filmmaker and subject were also united by advancing age. Iris, born in Queens in 1921, worked for Women’s Wear Daily before opening her own interior design business. She became an international sensation after a 2005 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit of her work took the fashion and design world by storm. She would later quip that the show had made her a “geriatric starlet.”
Albert was born in 1926 and made his first documentary, Psychiatry in Russia, in 1955. He went on to captivate the world with Salesman, Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens, part of a body of work composed of more than 40 films. He died on March 5, 2015, at age 88.
While Iris is a petite woman (with signature oversized round glasses), her personality and energy are large in scale. She describes her approach to fashion in musical terms: “I like to improvise. It’s like playing jazz.” Among those improvisations: combining a Chinese shaman’s coat with “skinny” pants for cocktail wear, or matching haute couture tops with pants fashioned from church vestments and tribal jewelry.
And she is the undisputed queen of the accessory.
Her fascination with accessories, she explains, is the result of growing up during the Great Depression, when her mother taught her that all she needed was a simple black dress. Accessories could “dress it up or dress it down.” Albert follows her on a shopping trip to Harlem, where she displays another talent: haggling. She includes a cultural lesson: In some countries merchants are insulted if you don’t try for a better price. “You ruin their day if you pay what they initially ask. They think they should have asked more.”
Iris has a knack for happy, long-lasting matrimony. In 1948 she married Carl Apfel, an advertising executive, and together they founded Old World Weavers, which manufactured fabrics. From 1948 until 1992, the couple helped restore the fabrics of major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, as well as those in the White House collection. (“Oh, we had a problem with Jackie,” Carl says impishly, referring to the Kennedys, before being poked by his wife. “Stop!” she tells the camera. “We’re not supposed to talk about the White House too much.”) Carl, who passed away in 2015 just before turning 101, is also a central figure in the film, which captures the duo travelling between their homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach.
Iris shows off photos from her “small” wedding—125 guests—and brags that she still has the shoes she wore that day, which, she adds, have come back into style. The couple never had children because she wanted a career and travel. “I didn’t want my child raised by a nanny,” she explains. “You can’t do everything. Something has to give.”
The film leaves no doubt that theirs was a profound romance. They continuously hold hands, laugh together when Carl is talked into donning wild and colorful clothes and hats and enthusiastically celebrate his 100th birthday. “It’s very good,” Carl says. “It’s not a dull marriage. I have a very talented wife! I think I’ll keep her.”
Iris includes interviews with leading fashion industry figures, including Margaret Russell, then editor-in- chief of Architectural Digest, who says Iris stands at the “intersection of fashion, interior design and art.” Other admirers include Harold Koda, former head of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jenna Lyons of J. Crew, designers Dries Van Noten and Alexis Bittar and photographer Bruce Weber.
Some unexpected celebrities show up as well, including Kanye West. He greets Iris backstage at the CFDA Fashion Awards at Lincoln Center in New York, where she admits to being “a big fan.” Kanye compliments her youthful look—”in yellow, you look so good tonight”—and Iris doesn’t miss a beat. “My goodness! Coming from such a handsome young fellow? Wow!”
The film also highlights her work as a visiting professor at the School of Human Ecology (Division of Textiles and Apparel) at the University of Texas at Austin. A select group of students in her class are treated to a weeklong tour of the New York fashion industry. They get not only a close look at every aspect of the business, but a good dose of Iris’ wisdom.
“It’s better to be happy than well dressed,” she insists.
And while glamour is good, “I never feel pretty,” Iris says. “I’m not a pretty person. All the girls who got by on their looks, when they faded they were nothing. I don’t happen to like pretty. Most of the world is not with me, but I don’t care!” And has she ever considered plastic surgery? “I think unless God gave you a nose like Pinocchio or you were in a fire or some terrible thing, why mess? Some very important people I know . . . come out looking like [a] Picasso.”
She also denounces conformity within the industry. “Individuality is so lost these days,” she says. “Downtown there’s no style. It’s all black. It’s a uniform. I like big and bold and lots of pizazz. Color can raise the dead.”
Iris’ energy is almost dizzying. “I like being active. I like being in the world and of the world.” She also loves being Iris. During a back-and-forth with the audience at her Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, she reveals that her nephew, Billy Apfel, overheard a patron wondering whether Iris Apfel was deceased. “So I told him the next time you hear that, tap the lady on the shoulder and say, ‘My auntie is very much alive. She’s just walking around to save funeral expenses.'”
Yet she acknowledges that the years are taking their toll. “Everything I have two of, one hurts. But unless it’s something really serious, you have to push yourself. Forget about yourself.” When she needs a boost she goes shopping, which makes her feel “nineteen and a half.”
Iris, which was an Official Selection at the 2014 New York Film Festival, includes an observation that is the perfect marriage of the style maven’s individuality, confidence and style: “I didn’t give a damn about going to the party or being at the party. It was getting dressed for the party.”
About the filmmaker:
Albert Maysles, Director/Cinematographer
Born in Boston in 1926, Albert Maysles was a pioneer of “direct cinema” and, along with his late brother, David, was the first to make nonfiction feature films where the drama of life unfolds as is without scripts, sets, interviews or narration. Albert made his first film, Psychiatry in Russia (1955), as he transitioned from psychologist to filmmaker. Among his more than 40 films are some of the most iconic works in documentary history, including Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1975).
More recently, he directed the award-winning Muhammad and Larry for ESPN’s 30 for 30 and Get Yer Ya- Ya’s Out!, both in 2009, and reunited with Paul McCartney in 2011 for The Love We Make. (In 1964, Albert and his brother chronicled the Fab Four’s historic arrival in America in What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA.) His last film, In Transit, premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
Among the honors Albert received in his lifetime were a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Peabody Awards, two Emmy Awards, six lifetime achievement awards, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and the award for best cinematography at Sundance for Lalee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (2001), which was also nominated for an Academy Award®. In 1999, Eastman Kodak saluted him as one of the world’s 100 finest cinematographers and in 2014, President Barack Obama presented him with a 2013 National Medal of Arts “for rethinking and remaking documentary film in America.”
Albert Maysles passed away in New York City on March 5, 2015.
Iris is a production of Maysles Films, Inc. in association with American Documentary | POV.
Director: Albert Maysles
Producers: Laura Coxson, Rebekah Maysles, Jennifer Ash Rudick
Executive Producer: Doreen Small
Co-Executive Producer: Charles C. Dorego
Co-Producer: Paul Lovelace
Camera: Albert Maysles, Nelson Walker III, Sean Price Williams, Nick Canfield, Chris Dapkins
Editor: Paul Lovelace
Sound: Mike Karas
Running Time: 86:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producers: Justine Nagan, Chris White
Vice President, Content Strategy: Eliza Licht
Associate Producer: Nicole Tsien
Coordinating Producer: Nikki Heyman
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Produced by American Documentary, Inc., POV is public television’s premier showcase for nonfiction films. Since 1988, POV has been the home for the world’s boldest contemporary filmmakers, celebrating intriguing personal stories that spark conversation and inspire action. Always an innovator, POV discovers fresh new voices and creates interactive experiences that shine a light on social issues and elevate the art of storytelling. With our documentary broadcasts, original online programming and dynamic community engagement campaigns, we are committed to supporting films that capture the imagination and present diverse perspectives.
POV films have won 34 Emmy® Awards, 18 George Foster Peabody Awards, 12 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, three Academy Awards®, the first-ever George Polk Documentary Film Award and the Prix Italia. The POV series has been honored with a Special News & Documentary Emmy Award for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking, three IDA Awards for Best Curated Series and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) Award for Corporate Commitment to Diversity. Learn more at www.pbs.org/pov/.
POV Community Engagement and Education (www.pbs.org/pov/engage/)
POV’s Community Engagement and Education team works with educators, community organizations and PBS stations to present more than 650 free screenings every year. In addition, we distribute free discussion guides and standards-aligned lesson plans for each of our films. With our community partners, we inspire dialogue around the most important social issues of our time.
POV Digital (www.pbs.org/pov/)
Since 1994, POV Digital has driven new storytelling initiatives and interactive production for POV. The department created PBS’s first program website and its first web-based documentary (POV’s Borders) and has won major awards, including a Webby Award (and six nominations) and an Online News Association Award. POV Digital continues to explore the future of independent nonfiction media through its digital productions and the POV Hackathon lab, where media makers and technologists collaborate to reinvent storytelling forms. @povdocs on Twitter.
American Documentary, Inc. (www.amdoc.org/)
American Documentary, Inc. (AmDoc) is a multimedia company dedicated to creating, identifying and presenting contemporary stories that express opinions and perspectives rarely featured in mainstream media outlets. AmDoc is a catalyst for public culture, developing collaborative strategic engagement activities around socially relevant content on television, online and in community settings. These activities are designed to trigger action, from dialogue and feedback to educational opportunities and community participation.
Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Endowment for the Arts. Additional funding comes from Nancy Blachman and David desJardins, Bertha Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, The Fledgling Fund, Marguerite Casey Foundation, Ettinger Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, and public television viewers. POV is presented by a consortium of public television stations, including KQED San Francisco, WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG.