Iris Apfel Dies at 102

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Iris Apfel, who in her later years became a designer, style icon, influencer and face of numerous fashion brands, died Friday at her home in Palm Beach, Fla., at age 102.

In a statement, an Apfel spokesman said she died of natural causes surrounded by her longtime caregivers.

More from WWD

Apfel was born Aug. 29, 1921 in Astoria, Queens. She was preceded in death by her 100-year-old husband Carl Apfel in 2015. The couple had homes in Palm Beach and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She was an only child and had no immediate survivors. Apfel and her husband started their own textile company, Old World Weavers, in 1950 and sold it in 1992. Aside from having a hand in nine restoration projects at the White House during her multidecade career, she racked up her share of ad campaigns in recent years including Kate Spade, MAC Cosmetics, Alexis Bittar, HSN and Le Bon Marché. Her White House commissions for Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton led to the nickname the “First Lady of Fabric.”

Throughout her lifetime, Apfel traveled the world and developed a passion for flea markets, which inspired her work and fueled her enthusiasm for collecting fashion, furniture, jewelry, antiques and accessories. Some of those treasures and finds were used in her work as an interior designer for such notables as Estée Lauder and Greta Garbo. With unwavering curiosity, imagination and unmatchable self-expression, Apfel never shied away from bold hues, patterns, textures or statements. “I’m a color person. I’ve never been one to play it safe,” she told WWD in 2012.

With her trademark oversize glasses, red lipstick and short cropped gray hair, Apfel’s status as a fashion icon seemed to blossom with each passing year. Celebrating her centenary, for example, she teamed with H&M on a collaborative capsule and her other collaborations over the years stretched from jewelry to eyewear, handbags to fashion with retailers such as Macy’s and a Barbie Collector doll that was styled by her. In fact, barely a quarter went by without the announcement of either another collaboration or an ad campaign in which the tireless Apfel was appearing.

“I’m so busy, I’m like a crazy person. I love to work,” she told WWD in 2018, particularly after losing her “darling husband.”

“We were in business together and in everything together so the loss was monumental. I did it to keep my sanity,” she said.

Despite having been known in her field for decades, Apfel — by her own account — remained “a very private person” and her nonagenarian fame took some getting used to. She told WWD in 2018, “The accolades, the attention and the recognition, which is global now, are quite something.”

Apfel was signed by IMG for worldwide representation for modeling, appearances and endorsements in 2019.

“I’m very excited. I never had a proper agent,” the 97-year-old Apfel told WWD at the time. She said she previously handled deals herself.

“I’m a do-it-yourself girl. I never expected my life would take this turn so I never prepared for it. It all just happened so suddenly, and I thought at my tender age, I’m not going to set up offices and get involved with all kinds of things. I thought it was a flash in the pan, and it’s not going to last. Somehow, people found me. People would just call. Tommy Hilfiger said that was no way to do it, and he put us together. I’m very excited and very grateful,” said Apfel in 2019.

Reached Friday night, Hilfiger said, “My wife Dee and I were incredibly blessed to have met and spent time with Iris in the last few years both in Palm Beach and in New York. She was an absolute inspiration and had impeccable style as well as a great appetite and appreciation for everything fashion. She had an incredible presence and aura and always held court wherever she was. We were also honored to participate with her in her mentoring programs she headed for many years with fashion students from the University of Texas. She will be greatly missed, and it is a huge loss for the entire fashion community.”

Donna Karan told WWD on Saturday, “Iris had a passion for fashion like no other. Best dressed, from head to toe, bright colors, big or layered jewelry and statement details — she inspired me to do color! So grateful to have known her. So thrilled to have our memories.”

In 2019, the Peabody Museum in Salem, Mass., unveiled the Iris and Carl Apfel Wing. A decade before that the museum staged “Rare Bird and Fashion Icon: The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” which featured 90 of Apfel’s complete fashion ensembles, as well as 1,000 pieces, plus complete outfits once worn by her late husband. The eclectic assortment provided design inspiration for some and travel wanderlust for others like Anna Sui, who once singled out the 19th-century harem jewelry “with parts that trembled” in Apfel’s show as wish-list items before embarking on a trip to Syria.

But it was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s 2005 show “Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection” at the Costume Institute that sparked her popularity by showcasing Apfel’s eclectic collection of clothing and jewelry. That made her the first living person, who was not a designer, to have her clothing and accessories exhibited at the Costume Institute. The exhibition helped catapult her further into the public eye.

The Costume Institute’s former chief curator in charge Harold Koda said the criteria for the show was that it had to be museum-worthy material, “but the story was really how that was put together by one woman’s imagination and self expression.”

As for what people might not understand about Apfel, he said that would be akin to what people often don’t understand about many great women of style. “The really great ones are just really smart women. I can’t say categorically that they’re all educated, but they have really incredible minds and native intelligence,” he said. That’s often not what comes to mind with many mistakenly reducing such fashion-conscious women as “narcissistic, vain and could be like a bobblehead doll.”

She was also the subject of a 2015 documentary film, “Iris,” directed by Albert Maysles and was featured in the documentary, “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” which premiered on HBO in 2017. At 94, she penned “Pocket Iris Wisdom: Witty Quotes and Wise Words From Iris Apfel.” A few years later Apfel wrote another book, “Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon, Musings of a Geriatric Starlet,” which contained an eclectic mix of musings, photos and illustrations.

Opposed to self-help books, Apfel told WWD in 2018 that she found them rather insulting. “It’s not my place to tell you how to dress or what to do. I think it should be an individual matter,” she said.

Growing up in Astoria, Apfel’s Russian-born mother Sadye Asofsky ran a fashion boutique and her father Samuel Barrel was an entrepreneur who specialized in mirrors and glass. Apfel’s adventurous spirit started with nickel subway rides from Queens to Manhattan, where she explored thrift stores, antique shops and flea markets in Greenwich Village, Chinatown, Harlem and other neighborhoods. After enrolling at New York University, she later transferred to the University of Wisconsin. In need of a few extra credits, she took a museum administration course and chose American jazz as the focus of her term paper. Unable to locate any library books on the subject, Apfel went to Chicago to interview some leading jazz musicians, including Duke Ellington, who became a lifelong friend, according to the Wisconsin Alumni Association.

After an early job at WWD, Apfel went on to work for the interior designer Elinor Johnson. Apfel also had a run as an assistant to the fashion illustrator Robert Goodman. The wealth and success she amassed over time did not equate to elitism. Venturing into handbags through a deal with HSN at that time, Apfel mused, “The old bag is getting into bags.”

Her aim was to give the masses what they want. “I’m a great believer that a lot of people want good design and high quality at a price,” she said in a 2018 WWD interview. Post-pandemic in September 2021, she reminded many of the importance of personal enjoyment to one’s happiness, by celebrating her centennial with a birthday party in an 57th Street skyscraper with Mickey Boardman, Bruce Weber, Timo Weiland, Lynn Tesoro, Joanna Mastroianni and more. Without throwing all caution to the wind, Apfel ensured that on-site COVID-19 tests were mandatory for admission.

Weber said Saturday that an Italian Vogue shoot with Apfel many years ago led to a decades-long friendship. Introduced by Franca Sozzani, who had described Apfel as “unlike anyone she’d ever met,” Weber said that Apfel’s style “was indescribably her own.”

He continued, “I didn’t get to say goodbye. But leaving a restaurant after having lunch about a month ago, she said to me, ‘So where do you want me to be for the pictures?’ And I said, ‘Right here, just as you are.’”

Mindy Grossman, a partner at Consello Group, who previously was chief executive officer of HSNi, said Saturday, “Iris Apfel was a dear friend and an inspiration to me and to so many others. She truly possessed an audacious spirit, showed us that age is just a number and that embracing individuality is the truest form of beauty.

“I met Iris right before her 90th birthday and we became fast friends. She created unique collections for HSN and galvanized our audience with her humor, creativity and wisdom. She mentored hundreds of students at UT Austin as a visiting professor, and New York immersion week, where so many of the fashion elite participated, was an annual event everyone looked forward to. I remember hosting the premiere of her documentary, ‘Iris,’ and being awestruck by her deep love for her husband Carl and her brave, undaunted creative spirit and her passion for living the truest life. Her legacy will continue to inspire generations to come to live life vibrantly. And as she alway said, ‘You’ve got to try it, you’ve only got one trip, remember that!'” said Grossman.

Having spent several Thanksgiving breaks in Venice and Paris with a troupe that included the Apfels, designer James Galanos and others, Ralph Rucci said the Apfels were always the life of the party. Her contribution to fashion was embracing it with “a lack of consciousness” and headstrong individuality. Apfel’s message was, ‘Think like an individual — similar to how Diana Vreeland thought in many ways. Get away from the norm. Take chances. Don’t fear. And don’t be a bore.”

Fashion journalist Marylou Luther described Apfel as “a socialite who proved that there really were women who wore designer clothes, and women who attended the collections for all to see in all their finery. She was more than a socialite, of course. But in the fashion world, she put statement glasses on the map.”

Ken Downing, creative director of Halston and former senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, recalled Saturday, “It was jewelry that brought Iris and I together, when she created a lavish, haute fabric-covered trunk filled with pieces of her designs and from her personal collection for the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book. Within a matter of minutes of our meeting over lunch, our conversation turned to the importance of a good wrist stack, and all the better if it went to the elbow. We figured out immediately we were both Virgos, reeling in our curse of being perfectionists.

“You could not walk three feet with Iris in public that someone wasn’t asking to take a picture with her. Always gracious, Iris would oblige. Iris was hysterical. Her sense of humor was unparalleled. She was a human magnet that drew you to her,” said Downing.

Stacey Bendet, CEO and creative director of Alice + Olivia, who in 2018 designed 10 pieces for the Iris Apfel pop-up shop at Bergdorf Goodman, including a ballgown skirt with Apfel’s likeness, said Saturday, “Iris was a legend, an icon, and an ongoing inspiration in the fashion world. Her love of accessories, styling, clothes and creativity were endless. She will truly be missed.”

In 2022, Apfel designed The Royal Poinciana Plaza’s surfboard Christmas tree in Palm Beach, which was inspired by her own personal style over the years, featuring bright colors and over-the-top embellishments.

“Palm Beach is incredibly dear to me,” said Apfel at the time. “It’s where I live seasonally, and when on the island, one of my most frequented destinations is The Royal Poinciana Plaza. It’s charming, spirited and home to the most wonderful restaurants and shops.

A mock-up of Iris Apfel's surfboard Christmas tree for The Royal Poinciana Plaza.
A mock-up of Iris Apfel’s surfboard Christmas tree for The Royal Poinciana Plaza.

“What we’ve pulled together emulates my outlook on life. It’s playful, colorful, optimistic and completely unique. I hope everyone who views it smiles, and is inspired to walk to the beat of their own drum,” she said in 2022.

Petra Slinkard, PEM’s director of curatorial affairs and the Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles, said Saturday, “Today PEM cares for over 1,000 works representing Carl and Iris Apfel, and together their likeness stand strong in our Fashion and Design gallery, where their story helps visitors explore how fashion and design can be your life.”

Despite triggering memes, viral moments and fake Iris Apfel accounts, Apfel was mixed about social media. She considered it to be “a wonderful tool for commerce,” but she couldn’t understand “how people are so interested in every detail that everybody does. It seems to me to be a bit nosy,” She told WWD in 2018. “I think you will be hearing in the days to come the dreadful effects it has on young people.”

Memorial services in Palm Beach and Manhattan will be held at a later date, the statement said.

In the 2008 WWD interview, she offered some parting advice: “You’ve gotta enjoy yourself.”

Iris Apfel Through the Years

Iris Apfel in the front row
Iris Apfel in the front row
Iris Apfel
Iris Apfel
Iris B. Apfel attends the "Cartier I Love You" dinner at La Grenouille.
Iris B. Apfel attends the "Cartier I Love You" dinner at La Grenouille.

View Gallery

Launch Gallery: Iris Apfel Through the Years

Best of WWD