It Took Her 100th Birthday, But Iris Apfel Is Back to Dressing Up

Iris Apfel is probably the only living person who could convincingly say they’ve spent every single day looking fashionable for nine decades straight. It’s such an overwhelming achievement that one can’t help but feel relief upon learning that the style icon—or, to use her words, “geriatric starlet”—took a sartorial break on her 100th birthday. “I wore a nice cuddly white terrycloth robe,” she tells W shortly after the milestone. And while Apfel still no doubt looked chic then too—look no further than her signature owlish glasses—she made the rare exception knowing that she’d soon be celebrating her century on planet Earth a fitting 100 floors up from it on Thursday night of New York Fashion Week.

To be clear, Apfel is no risky centenarian. She’s been in full “hermit” mode in Florida, and had no plans to stage such an extravaganza before H&M entered the picture, promising those blessed with her presence would first have to show proof of vaccination and take a rapid Covid-19 test onsite. (It was only then that Apfel first began pondering the possibility of matching her mask to her outfit, having only ever played it safe with a medical mask and face shield.) Apfel and H&M’s collaboration doesn’t launch until March of 2022, but it’s not hard to see why the fast-fashion giant would want to make sure Apfel marked such a moment accordingly. After all, the 100-year-old’s renowned tenure in fashion stretches back decades before Albert Maysles’s acclaimed documentary Iris in 2014.

And yet, Apfel is strikingly relatable. Being at a party, lounging in a robe—in her case, those moments tend to come, well, about every 100 years. “I’m busy, busy, busy, like the proverbial one-armed paper hanger,” she says, fully serious. The H&M collab could be seen as just another of her many corporate partnerships, but to Apfel, it’s a milestone, too. Younger folks may only associate her with high fashion, but at her core, she’s always been about affordable options. In fact, Apfel is almost positive she was among the first women to wear jeans. And she hasn’t been afraid to both fully hunker and dress down in lockdown.

How did you celebrate the big day, ahead of your big birthday party during fashion week?

I woke up in the morning to find my two lovely girls who take care of me had transformed my apartment with hundreds of balloons. It was like a balloon forest—all beautiful, bright colors like a jar of jelly beans. I’d gotten so many flowers, there were enough to lay out a mafioso. And the gifts and the telephone calls kept coming. We had my cell, one of their cells, and the house phone. In all, between Sunday and Monday, we had over 100 telephone calls.

You made a last-minute outfit change before the party, going from the above blue suit in your upcoming collab to an over-the-top custom H&M look. In general, how far in advance do you plan out what you wear?

Oh, I never know. Sometimes a week before, sometimes five minutes before.

What’s your go-to outfit when you’re in a rush?

It used to be blue jeans. I’m probably one of the first women—if not the first woman—in America to wear blue jeans. But lately, I’ve been wearing black tights, which I have in different weights depending on the weather. Plus a black tank top or t-shirt or sweater on top. If it’s really chilly, I’ve done many, many very interesting quilted jackets and tunics over the years. I can dress it up or down with my jewelry.

Have you really ever shopped at H&M?

Oh my goodness, yes. I was one of their original customers. I had a call from what was supposed to be the biggest television station in Germany and Austria. They loved my idea of mixing high and low, so they asked if I would spend a day shopping with them if they came to New York. We started with the least expensive clothing—H&M—and from there, we went to Bergdorf Goodman.

Photo by Patrick McMullan via Getty Images for Central Park Tower

What was your first major designer purchase?

It was probably my first purchase of clothing period. My mother went back into business when I was about 10 or 11 years old and she had no time for me. It was during the Depression, and she was very, very busy. Easter was coming and I said, Oh my god, I don't have anything to wear. And she said, Well, don’t worry, you’re going to start getting your lessons—I’m going to give you $25 so you can go shopping and buy yourself an outfit. That was the beginning of my black belt career, so I really started from the bottom. I’ve been shopping for myself since I was 11 years old.

What did you do with that $25?

It was a very interesting story, because it had to be budgeted. Five cents was what it cost to go on the subway. I went from Astoria, where I lived, downtown to Union Square, where the first of the discount stores were. My mother used to shop at S. Klein on the Square all the time, and I walked in, and on the first rack, I fell madly in love with a designer dress. I don’t remember the designer name or anything, but it was $11.95 and it was gorgeous. I just fell madly in love. But I remembered that my mother said, You mustn’t buy the first thing you see. Since I had a few extra pennies, I decided to go uptown to 34th Street and see if there was anything that I liked better or was a better price. Uptown, things were much more expensive and I couldn’t find anything I liked. And it struck me: Oh my god, maybe somebody liked the dress as much as I did—maybe they bought it. I better run back. So I took the bus back downtown and looked and looked, and of course it wasn’t on the rack. I was heartsick. I just kept looking and looking, but you know in those discount stores, things just are slopped around.

Did you ever find it?

I finally did, and I was so excited. I gave thanks to god and gave $11.95 to the cashier.

Have you been dressing up in lockdown?

No, I must confess. I’m only back in New York about two weeks. I’ve spent lockdown in Florida, where I have a beautiful big apartment on the lake with a terrace where I’m able to get fresh air every day. And being my age, I was treated like a coddled egg.

What did you do to pass the time in quarantine?

I must say, I survived the lockdown quite well. I did a lot of writing. I found a lot of things to do, and a lot of people to scold. My friends would all call me up complaining, and I would tell them, just be quiet and be happy that you’re well.

I started something on my Instagram called the #IrisYourCloset challenge. I’ve gotten over 3,000 photographs from fans all over, from 70—seven, zero—different countries. I just hit 2 million [followers], and on Facebook, I’m a little bit shy of 1 million. So I’m very, very happy and thankful to my wonderful fans.

Courtesy of H&M

Is there a piece of advice you think applies to them across the board?

Yes. They should learn how to be individuals. How not to follow a mob and look like everybody else. Take your clothes out and put them together in different ways and you see how much fun it is. Be creative, and be yourself. Don’t be like everybody else. God gave you a personality, and you should express it—not try to be one of the herd.

Do you have any fashion regrets, or is there anything you’ve worn in the past that you would never wear again?

No, I must say, not really. I’m pretty much consistent in my approach to fashion. It’s something that I never plan, and don’t do consciously. I do everything by my gut. It’s not intellectual; it’s just the way I feel about it.

How many pairs of glasses do you have?

I couldn’t even begin to tell you. I’ve got so many I couldn’t count—just swimming in glasswear. I've had a lot of my own, and then ones I bought for ideas. I started collecting them when I was a little girl because I saw it way back then: Spectacles are a wonderful fashion item. It took a few years for people to understand that, but I’ve always been ahead.