Iris Apfel, fashion and design icon known for her eye-catching style, dies at 102

Iris Apfel, a textile expert, interior designer and fashion celebrity known for her eccentric style, has died. She was 102.

Her death was confirmed by her commercial agent, Lori Sale, who called Apfel “extraordinary.” No cause of death was given. It was also announced on her her verified Instagram page on Friday, which a day earlier had celebrated that Leap Day represented her 102nd-and-a-half birthday.

Born Aug. 29, 1921, Apfel was famous for her irreverent, eye-catching outfits, mixing haute couture and oversized costume jewelry. A classic Apfel look would, for instance, pair a feather boa with strands of chunky beads, bangles and a jacket decorated with Indigenous beadwork.

With her big, round, black-rimmed glasses, bright red lipstick and short white hair, she stood out at every fashion show she attended.

Her style was the subject of museum exhibits and a documentary film, Iris, directed by Albert Maysles.

Two people standing close to each other pose for a photograph.
Apfel and documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles are seen at a film festival in New York City in October 2014. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

“I’m not pretty, and I’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter,” she once said. “I have something much better. I have style.”

Apfel enjoyed late-in-life fame on social media, amassing nearly three followers on Instagram, where her profile declares: “More is more & Less is a Bore.” On TikTok, she drew 215,000 followers as she waxed wise on things fashion and style and promoted recent collaborations.

“Being stylish and being fashionable are two entirely different things,” she said in one TikTok video. “You can easily buy your way into being fashionable. Style, I think, is in your DNA. It implies originality and courage.”

She never retired, telling Today, “I think retiring at any age is a fate worse than death. Just because a number comes up doesn’t mean you have to stop.”

People are seen seated in the front row of a fashion show.
Apfel, centre, attends a show during New York Fashion Week in September 2015. (Monica Schipper/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows)

“Working alongside her was the honour of a lifetime. I will miss her daily calls, always greeted with the familiar question: “‘What have you got for me today?'” Sale said in a statement.

“Testament to her insatiable desire to work. She was a visionary in every sense of the word. She saw the world through a unique lens — one adorned with giant, distinctive spectacles that sat atop her nose.”

‘Witty and exuberantly idiosyncratic’

Apfel was an expert on textiles and antique fabrics. She and her husband Carl owned a textile manufacturing company, Old World Weavers, and specialized in restoration work, including projects at the White House under six different U.S. presidents. Apfel’s celebrity clients included Estée Lauder and Greta Garbo.

Apfel’s own fame blew up in 2005 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City hosted a show about her called Rara Avis, Latin for “rare bird.” The museum described her style as “both witty and exuberantly idiosyncratic.”

Her originality is typically revealed in her mixing of high and low fashions — Dior haute couture with flea market finds, 19th-century ecclesiastical vestments with Dolce & Gabbana lizard trousers. The museum said her “layered combinations” defied “aesthetic conventions” and “even at their most extreme and baroque” represented a “boldly graphic modernity.”

A smiling person holding up an award embraces another person as they pose for a photograph.
Apfel is photographed with designer Alexander Wang at an awards show in New York City in June 2011. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., was one of several museums around the country that hosted a travelling version of the show. Apfel later decided to donate hundreds of pieces to the Peabody — including couture gowns — to help it build what she termed “a fabulous fashion collection.” The Museum of Fashion & Lifestyle near Apfel’s winter home in Palm Beach, Fla., also plans a gallery dedicated to displaying items from Apfel’s collection.

Apfel was born in New York City to Samuel and Sadye Barrel. Her mother owned a boutique.

Apfel’s fame in her later years included appearances in ads for brands like MAC Cosmetics and Kate Spade. She also designed a line of accessories and jewelry for Home Shopping Network, collaborated with H&M on a sold-out-in-minutes collection of brightly coloured apparel, jewelry and shoes, put out a makeup line with Ciaté London, an eyeglass collection with Zenni and partnered with Ruggable on floor coverings.

A person waves while wearing a flamboyant turquoise and holding a cane.
Apfel attends an event in New York City in November 2021. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In a 2017 interview with AP at age 95, she said her favourite contemporary designers included Ralph Rucci, Isabel Toledo and Naeem Khan, but added, “I have so much, I don’t go looking.”

Asked for her fashion advice, she said, “Everybody should find her own way. I’m a great one for individuality. I don’t like trends. If you get to learn who you are and what you look like and what you can handle, you’ll know what to do.”

She called herself the “accidental icon,” which became the title of a book she published in 2018 filled with her mementos and style musings. Odes to Apfel are abundant, from a Barbie in her likeness to T-shirts, glasses, artwork and dolls.

Apfel’s husband died in 2015. They had no children.

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