Editor’s Note: Iris opens across Canada starting in Toronto May 15th at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
Are you wearing ten bracelets on your wrist at once? Does your wardrobe come mostly from hip little thrift shops no one else seems to know about? Have you adopted a pair of glasses with chunky, dark frames as part of your signature look? Then you might be interested to know that nonagenarian socialite and fashion maven Iris Apfel beat you to your own style by a few decades… and she looks better than you do, too.
Iris, the latest documentary from Albert Maysles, who passed away in March of this year, follows the then-91-year-old self-described “geriatric starlet” through her often unbelievable life.
Iris, the latest documentary from Albert Maysles, who passed away in March of this year, follows the then-91-year-old self-described “geriatric starlet” through her often unbelievable life. Constantly surrounded by the clatter of her own jewelry, Iris goes thrifting, helms fashion exhibitions at MOMA, sells her own line of jewelry on television, flirts with Kanye West and teaches college students about the history of design. She’s bright and personable and devoted to her adoring, witty husband Carl, who turned 100 years old during the making of the film. The couple live in the exact kind of apartment you’d expect older, well-off, eccentric New Yorkers to live in, filled with tchotchkes and decades of memories, very little of which Iris seems to get to enjoy thanks to a hectic schedule that would try someone even half her age.
Through his trademark understated style, Maysles quietly reveals multiple narratives in Iris’ life: on the surface, the splashy and fabulous life of an amazing designer and businesswoman, and just below, the tale of a survivor, a larger-than-life icon whose very existence reminds us of our own fragility, and it’s all tied together with keen observations on our current culture. Very early on, Iris bemoans the homogenization of society, a topic that is never directly mentioned again. Indirectly, however, Maysles and editor Paul Lovelace include brief, almost subliminal shots of gawkers and lookie-loos in the background during Iris’ outings, members of the general public staring at both cameras and people who look a little different than everyone else.
Through his trademark understated style, Maysles quietly reveals multiple narratives in Iris’ life: on the surface, the splashy and fabulous life of an amazing designer and businesswoman, and just below, the tale of a survivor, a larger-than-life icon whose very existence reminds us of our own fragility.
As much as Iris seems down to earth, she’s not immune to the power of her own ego. She claims, for example, to have been the first woman to wear jeans in the 1940s, and was forced to buy boys’ styles because nothing was being made for women. However, fashionable ladies had been wearing flared denim trousers since the 1920s, and Lady Levis were introduced in 1934. Her jeans story may be the product of poor memory or an anecdote specifically meant to promote her brand; either way, Iris is only human, she has her foibles, and she’s a fascinating person because of those foibles, not despite them.
She’s not a disposable entertainment product, either, though one suspects that much of the public image she has crafted, including the tale about the boys’ jeans, comes from an understanding that her role is not just to inform and educate, but to amuse. When Iris Apfel gets irritated by those who, as she said in a recent New York Magazine interview, act like she “invented penicillin,” she’s irritated by their inappropriate expectations, and by our culture’s unending need to leech off of others in an attempt to find satisfaction within ourselves.
To that end, the topic of older women in fashion is very much in vogue right now, and many of the themes in documentaries such as Advanced Style or Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel appear in Iris, too. Through Maysles’ typically subtle style, however, you get something more, namely, the very real sense that our interest in fabulous women like Iris is because she represents an almost extinct version of the American Dream: the desire to experience other cultures, to travel widely and with an open mind, and to turn an unwavering intellectual curiosity into an amazing and lucrative career.
But no one needs to travel and experience a culture to buy items that represent it anymore. A few bucks spent online and that pretty little bit of culture, authentic or not, will be on your doorstep in two to five days. And if someone has the good luck to possess the kind of instinct for clever and tasteful design that Apfel was, well, a few minutes on Tumblr and you’ll discover hundreds of others with the exact same kind of good taste; no globe-trotting career in design will ever be waiting for them.
Iris Apfel is a particularly American kind of success story, and Iris is a particularly American kind of film. At the very center of Iris is a celebration of the self, which exists peacefully next to the film’s good-natured deconstruction of the very same self. Playful, insightful, offering meditations on art while reveling in the basest commercial aspirations, Iris is a complicated film, as compelling and unique as Iris Apfel herself.
Playful, insightful, offering meditations on art while reveling in the basest commercial aspirations, Iris is a complicated film, as compelling and unique as Iris Apfel herself.