Iris Apfel: New York Fashion Legend and Self-Proclaimed 'Geriatric Starlet' Dies at Her Florida Home Aged 102

A true New Yorker, Apfel, born Iris Barrel on August 29, 1921, was raised as an only child in Queens to two Jewish farmers.

Iris Apfel, the pioneering textile artist and iconic New York City personality known for her eclectic style, particularly her large black-framed glasses, died on Friday at her home in Palm Beach, Florida. She was 102. Her death was revealed on her Instagram page on Friday with a lovely photo of the renowned fashion icon adorned in an elegant black and gold gown.

A singular trendsetter, Apfel became the subject of museum exhibitions, including one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005. She was prominently featured in a 2007 coffee table book, played a key role in a groundbreaking MAC Cosmetics campaign in 2012, and a documentary released in 2014.

Death of an Icon

Iris Apfel
Iris Apfel X

"Iris Barrel Apfel, August 29, 1921 – March 1, 2024," read the caption on the Instagram post. As of now, the cause of death for the New York style icon, celebrated for her unique fashion sense, has not been revealed.

Apfel collaborated with nine presidential wives on design restoration projects at the White House, using fabrics from Old World Weavers, the textile company she co-established with her late husband, Carl Apfel.

Iris Apfel
Iris Apfel Instagram

A true New Yorker, Apfel, born Iris Barrel on August 29, 1921, was raised as an only child in Queens to two Jewish farmers.

Growing up, her father Samuel operated a mirror and glass business, while her mother Sadye owned a clothing boutique, ensconcing Iris in creativity from a young age.

At the young age of 12, she began taking the subway into Manhattan on Thursday afternoons to indulge in window shopping, an experience she shared in a 2015 interview with The Guardian.

"At that time you could ride the whole subway system for a nickel, so each week I would take a different section of New York — Chinatown, Yorkville, Harlem, Greenwich Village," she told the outlet.

She continued, "And I really fell in love with the Village. The Village was where I started to poke around antique shops and become enchanted with all this old junk."

Apfel studied art history at New York University before transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Iris Apfel
Iris Apfel Instagram

Following her graduation in 1943, she returned to New York City and started her career as a copywriter for Women's Wear Daily, as reported by Harper's Bazaar. Additionally, she worked as an assistant to interior designer Elinor Johnson.

In 1950, two years after marrying Carl, they jointly founded Old World Weavers.

Iris and Carl shared a passion for traveling the world, where they sourced items both for enjoyment and design projects. The inspiration for their company, Old World Weavers, stemmed from the distinctive designs they encountered during their travels to locations such as North Africa and Europe, as detailed by The Inside.

Extraordinary Life

While Apfel was a prominent figure in New York City circles, she gained widespread recognition later in life, precisely at the age of 84, when she was chosen for a museum exhibit.

Iris Apfel
Iris Apfel X

In 2005, Harold Koda, a fashion scholar and the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, reached out to Apfel.

A planned exhibit for that summer had been canceled, and having learned about Apfel's vast costume jewelry collection, Koda invited her to curate an exhibit, as reported by The Guardian.

The resulting exhibition, titled "Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection," was showcased at The Met from September 2005 to January 2006.

The exhibit highlighted 40 items from her personal collection, including notable pieces such as a Gripoix brooch and a pair of 18th-century paste earrings.

Embracing the title of a "geriatric starlet," Apfel was awarded several opportunities following her Met exhibit. In 2007, she became the subject of a cleverly titled coffee table book, "Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel," where "rare bird" translates to "Rara avis" in Latin.

Building on the success of "Rara Avis," Apfel collaborated with MAC Cosmetics to create a line of lipsticks.

Subsequently, she launched her own fashion line on the Home Shopping Network in 2011, playfully named "Rara Avis by Iris Apfel" after her exhibit.

In 2014, filmmaker Albert Maysles released a documentary about Apfel's life titled "Iris," which earned a nomination for an Emmy Award in 2017.

This documentary was one of Maysles' final works before he died in 2015 at the age of 88.

Iris Apfel
Iris Apfel X

"They just took lots and lots of footage — I think there's enough film left on the cutting-room floor to do three more films — so it came as kind of a shock," Apfel told The Cut in 2015 about the documentary.

"I'm very pleased that Albert loved it, as it was his last work. And I'm very gratified at the response we're getting because I had no idea what to expect; I thought people might just laugh, you know, in not the right way."

The designer frequently described herself as an "accidental icon," a term she also used as the title for her memoir released in 2018.