You can’t call Iris Apfel an original, at least in the precise sense of the word. Her style is based on repurposing and combining fashions — especially costume jewelry and clothing — made by other people. But she has a distinctive eye and knack for knowing that maximalism (layers upon layers of junk-store necklaces over clothes ranging from the finest embroidered silks to cheap denim) can be a chic riposte to the little-black-dress minimalism of traditional New York fashion. Her aesthetic has made her stand out as an icon for nine decades. On first sight, she definitely is an original.
The focus of Iris, Albert Maysles’s brief, sweet and compelling documentary, Apfel peers out at us from her trademark eyeglasses, as if blinking through two fish bowls. (Edna Mode, the fashionista from The Incredibles, is clearly a partial tribute to her as much as to Edith Head.)
Apfel is something of an eccentric, but Maysles knows his way around the breed. With his brother, the late David Maysles, he shot the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter, but also that eerie-comic classic of mother-daughter dysfunction, Grey Gardens.
That film was a document of decline and decay, the Bouvier Beale ladies appearing as emblems of former grandeur faded to the threadbare. Iris Apfel comes at life from an opposite angle: she elevates the commonplace to the elegant, finding inspiration from second-hand baubles just as much as from what most people coo over in Tiffany jewelry cases.
Barely slowing down in her 90s, Apfel jokes about her ceaseless drive. When her nephew overhears visitors at a Met exhibition of Apfel’s work say that they think she’s dead, she instructs him to tell them, “My auntie is very much alive — she’s just walking around to save funeral expenses.”
Talking heads give testament: Harold Koda, curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute; fashion photographer Bruce Weber; Architectural Digest editor-in-chief Margaret Russell. And we get to see Apfel wheeling her way through New York and Florida flea markets, haggling over trash and treasures. “I’m sorry,” she tells one vendor who tempts her with a too-pricey African textile, “I’m cheap.”
At its core, Iris isn’t so much about flash and fashion or even about Iris herself. It slowly, gently becomes a moving portrait of a long-term marriage that’s clearly a match of two people who share a love of travel and work. She and husband Carl created and ran Old World Weavers, fashioning reproductions of classic earlier-century fabrics that were then manufactured in mills around the globe. (That’s where a lot of their travel factored in.)
Before they sold the business, their clients included the Kennedys during the presidency. “We had a problem with Jackie,” Carl mutters, but Iris nudges him: “Stop — we’re not supposed to talk too much about the White House, they get very upset.”
Iris and Carl are much slower now. At times, we see each of them in a wheelchair. But their devotion seems not to have faded a day since their marriage. Iris even lies about a fall she takes. She doesn’t want Carl to panic when she has to be away for hip surgery.
The shadow of mortality creeps into the movie in more than one way. We watch Carl happily celebrate his 100th birthday, and Iris continue on unimpeded into her career as an “octogenarian starlet.”
But the third crucial member of this project, younger than either of them, isn’t around now to appreciate the film he made with them. Maysles passed away in March at age 88. Iris is a fitting last work for a man whose long career celebrated American individualism in its many facets.
Iris. A documentary by Albert Maysles. Rated PG-13. 83 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.