Did You Know They Were Jewish?

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IRIS APFEL

If you’ve been near a television screen recently, you may have been greeted by a car advert with an unlikely spokesperson: 94-year-old fashion icon, Iris Apfel. As she nears her centenary year, Apfel shows no sign of being left behind by the fashion industry. Just last year she was the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary (‘Iris’) and has no plans to retire from her eccentric lifestyle, criticising the industry for being eternally youth obsessed.

Even in her ninth decade, Apfel continues to be a forward-thinking presence in the fashion industry – she seldom talks about her early life or past achievements in interviews, remaining a rare humble personality in the egotistical world of style. What we do know about her Jewish upbringing is that she was born in 1921 in Queens, New York as Iris Barrel, an only child to her Jewish parents. Her upbringing inspired her to focus on her career; after her mother returned to work when she was 11, Iris decided never to have children as she worried they would grow to resent her when she chose to put focus on her career.

Apfel studied both art history at New York University and art at the University of Wisconsin, before getting her first taste in the fashion world as a writer for Women’s Wear Daily, the influential fashion industry magazine. As well as developing a presence in the fashion world, at 29 she co-founded interior design company Old World Weavers, which she ran until her retirement in 1992. Her most significant achievements in this role were taking on design restoration projects at the White House for nine consecutive presidents, culminating with Bill Clinton.

She co-founded that business with her husband, Carl Apfel, whom she married in 1948 and remained married to until his death in August 2015 at the age of 100, mere weeks after the release of the acclaimed documentary that they were the subjects of. Iris claims that as soon as they married they were inseparable, travelling the world together to source materials for their textile company. During this time, Iris incorporated all of the weird and wonderful styles from across the globe into her style.

With her thick-rimmed glasses that resemble miniature goldfish bowls, as well as her ever-evolving wardrobe, Iris is arguably the most distinctive figure in fashion across both the 20th and 21st centuries. She’s undoubtedly the most loveable, a true hero to everybody willing to stand out from the crowd, all the while maintaining a humble personality.