By Tammy Scileppi
It seems every time we turn around, we hear or read about another creative, spirited and accomplished individual who happens to hail from Queens.
In case you haven’t noticed, the borough’s history reads like a Who’s Who of famous and talented people – each of whom has made their mark on an ever-changing cultural scene.
Maverick style icon, fashion tastemaker, and interior designer Iris Apfel née Barrel — an Astoria native who rose up from humble beginnings — is still in the spotlight at age 95, and seems to be enjoying every minute of it.
While commenting on the New York fashion scene for the past 70 years, the fearless and flamboyant feminist has also been inspiring women of all ages to feel comfortable in their own skin and to just be who they are. But Apfel is best known for creatively expressing her individuality and joie de vivre through lavishly accessorized and stylishly over-the-top outfits. For years, she has reminded her fans: “Fashion, you can buy. But style, you possess.”
You may have seen Apfel featured in magazine ads or on TV commercials over the years, sporting her signature funky spectacles and always draped in unusual oversized beads, necklaces and bangles.
These days, the spry nonagenarian, who has described herself as the world’s oldest living teenager, is making fashion waves again with a new generation of style-hungry New Yorkers. Apfel’s Bohemian taste in clothing and jewelry may have translated into a new kind of Boho Chic, and she seems to inspire some discerning millennials, who appreciate her ageless Rara Avis (Rare Bird) by Iris Apfel line of clothing, handbags and jewelry artifacts, featured on the Home Shopping Channel.
Though retired, the savvy businesswoman has been busy collaborating with Atelier Swarovski on a new jewelry collection — called AW17 Atelier Swarovski by Iris Apfel — and she greeted patrons during a preview at an invitation-only event held June 22 at Rib & Rhein, a Newport, R.I., luxury boutique owned and operated by Thomas and Erin Ribeiro.
“Ms. Apfel epitomizes what we value in fashion today: a distinctive style born out of confidence and grace, with a strong emphasis on individuality,” Thomas Ribiero said. “ She has been a trendsetter for some 70 years, constantly intrigued by fashion and always remaining at its cutting edge.”
But don’t call her a “fashionista.”
Apfel’s vibrant look seems to remind one of a colorful, rare bird. It was a stunning exhibit showcasing her personal collection of garments, fabrics and accessories at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, entitled “Rava Avis: The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” that launched her newfound popularity in 2005.
Young Iris may have acquired her fashion sense from her mother Sadye — a Russian-born immigrant who owned a boutique — and her business savvy from both Sadye and her father, Samuel, who were successful entrepreneurs. Her father’s family owned a glass-and-mirror business. Her grandparents settled in Long Island City and owned a farm.
Fueled by unbridled creativity, Apfel’s idiosyncratic, sartorial flair had transformed into a passion for exotic fabrics and interior design, early on. After studying art history at New York University and graduating art school at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1940s, she embarked on a career in fashion and started out with a $15-a-week job as copy girl at Women’s Wear Daily, but quickly switched gears and took a job with an interior designer.
The divine Ms. Apfel proudly embraces a “more is more” style mantra — an attitude that’s apparent in her interior decorating philosophy, as well.
Two years after she married Carl Apfel (who died in 2015 at the age of 100) in 1948, Iris and her husband started their own fabric company, Old World Weavers, and worked together in interior decoration and textiles until 1992. During that time, they took on numerous design restoration projects at the White House for nine presidents: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Another woman of a certain age, feisty Queens gal Rita Plush is still staying active as an author, educator, and interior designer. When she isn’t writing or running her decorating business, Plush teaches at Queensborough Community College in Bayside. The energetic grandma proved she still had it going on when she competed against 10 over-60 New York contestants at the 32nd Ms. New York Senior America Pageant, held on Long Island in April.
Plush recalled meeting Apfel as a newly minted interior designer back in the 1970s, when going floor-to-floor at the Decoration & Design Building (D&D building) in Manhattan, the go-to source for designers.
“The first time I saw Iris Apfel, I was familiarizing myself with the different showroom offerings,” Plush remembered. “I decided to pop into Old World Weavers. The fabrics were gorgeous, truly old-world designs – Napoleon anyone? Also hanging from the high, imposing racks were heavy, textured and exotic samples, and very expensive.”
“And there, on what seemed to be a throne – among all these fabulous fabrics – was a woman wearing bangle bracelets on her wrists, and beads the size of ping-pong balls, who seemed to be dressed in the same fabrics she was selling, asking me if I needed help. ‘Just looking,’ I meekly said, and scurried
Apfel’s story emerged on the big screen when “IRIS,” a documentary about her life, hit theaters back in 2015. In the film, Apfel offers some pearls of wisdom. More than a fashion film, it’s a story about creativity and how a soaring free spirit continues to inspire.
“I don’t have any rules,” Apfel said in the film. “If I did, it would be a waste of time.”