by Frank Calvillo
I don’t claim to know anything about high fashion. To me, its a world that is so completely alien with a language that I will most likely never be able to speak. So it was with a partial hesitance that I watched the trailer for the documentary Iris, a look at the life and still-thriving career of Iris Apfel, one of New York’s most influential fashion icons.
As it turned out, fashion actually comprised only a small part of Iris. The bulk of Albert Maysles’ documentary celebrates the life of one of the industry’s most hilarious and innovative forces. At the age of 93, Iris shows no signs of slowing down, carrying with her a vitality and a hunger for life and work that’s only matched by her love for her husband Carl.
By far the most enjoyable aspect of Iris is the flood of memorable and hilarious quotes which come out of her mouth. When told by her nephew that people stop and ask if his aunt is still alive, she tells him, “Tell them I’m very much alive. I’m just walking around to save on funeral expenses.” When a friend asks Iris how she’s doing, she replies, “I don’t know. I’m vertical.” Iris’ humor is aimed at anyone she encounters, but she saves her sharpest stuff for herself. There’s something endearing about someone who refers to herself as a geriatric starlet or reacts to Halloween costumes of her likeness by exclaiming, “And people buy that? Poor children.”
Yet there’s a very refreshing practicality and matter of factness within Iris that’s so often lost in today’s society, which she steadfastly clings to. When asked if making the decision to part with some of her treasured antique clothing and pieces, of which she’s spent years collecting, keeps her up at night, she says, “Oh God no. There’s more important things to think about.”
Plenty of time is paid to Iris’ career, which includes the hugely successful textile firm she launched and ran with her husband, her work as an interior designer, and the many museum retrospectives which bear her stamp. Iris’ unique eye for vintage patterns and loud colors became her signature and was sought out by many high-profile individuals, including several U.S. Presidents. These aspects of Iris manage to put a new spin on the concept of design, and through its unusual subject, paint it as an area of society full of limitless imagination.
The pleasant surprise about Iris is the undeniably touching portrait it paints of a long and successful marriage. Hearing Iris and Carl talk about each other is so romantic in a natural, real way. It’s impossible not to melt a little at hearing Carl refer to Iris as his child bride, echoing the fiery spark that still exists between the two. Sequences such as Iris trying to hide from Carl the fact that she had hip surgery in an effort to not complicate his already fragile health are touching, and Carl continuously teasing Iris leading to her scolding him draws nothing but smiles. While Iris is about the legacy of an incredibly hilarious and innovative woman, this is also a film about how a successful marriage can be both a partnership and long-lasting romance.
Its interesting to see however the legacy Iris has attained and even more interesting to see her reaction to it. Scenes including the President of J. Crew gushing over her and MAC Cosmetics creating a shopping bag with her likeness on it say a lot about this woman’s unmatched influence on the industry and her nonchalance to it all.
Yet, it’s the time the film spends on Iris’ own UT in NYC program, where future designers from the University of Texas at Austin are flown to New York and are educated about the history and the importance of fashion, which she truly values. On a personal note, I have a friend from UT Austin who was accepted into this program and has recently begun her first full time design job as a result. Iris would most certainly be proud.
Its easy to see why Maysles was drawn to Iris as a subject. This is a woman so endlessly quotable and fascinating, but more importantly, Iris has a one of a kind slant on life that makes a definite statement and alters the world around her for the better. Its the type of quality which has always been a staple of the director’s films. Maysles passed away earlier this year and the world lost one of the most gifted documentarians as a result. Yet with Iris, the filmmaker left a more than appropriately fitting end to a career spent capturing the wonder and magic of life in all its incarnations.