The fashion documentary has become a bona fide film genre. In the past decade alone, filmmakers have spun out more than two dozen docs, from the delicious Vogue insider flick The September Issue to the incredible story of a global fashion editor in Diana Vreeland: The Eye Must Travel and, of course, the quirky life of New York Times street-style photographer in Bill Cunningham New York.
In this celebrated tradition comes IRIS, a fantastic study of 93-year-old entrepreneur, interior designer and fashion icon Iris Apfel, one of those rare birds who elevates personal style to an art form. In fact, curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art took note and built a 2005 exhibit around her — Rare Bird: The Irreverent Iris Apfel.
In the film, Apfel is in good hands; Albert Maysles, at 88, deftly acts as cinematographer and director, as he did for Grey Gardens, the classic cult doc about some other rare birds, Edith and Edith Beale, or the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. However, Maysles did not live to see the film premiere of IRIS; he passed away in March.
Maysles follows Apfel as she prepares for the Met show — rummaging through her sartorial collections in her many Manhattan apartments used solely to house said collections, haggling at flea markets and putzing around with her adoring 100-year-plus husband in their home, which is more like a living museum of curiosities (keep an eye out for the life-size ostrich sculpture that unfolds into a bar).
It’s clear that Apfel’s quest for aesthetics has been a lifelong pursuit. And more impressive still is her lucid recollection of the history of each piece — where she acquired it, who designed it, what the world was like when she bought it. And while she concedes, “It’s better to be happy than well-dressed,” she also muses that life is short, and she “might as well amuse people.”
Despite operating in the upper echelons of society, there’s nothing haughty or contrived about Apfel. Depending on the day, she may sport a denim Looney Tunes button-up or a couture Oscar de la Renta suit. She effortlessly blends low- and high-brow culture, making both better. And no ensemble is complete without an army of bangles and her fabulously oversized black bifocals.
Maysles wastes no time uncovering the crux of the film — the beauty of individuality, an intangible essence that cannot be bought off the runway or gained through plastic surgery.
“I like individuality,” Apfel says in the opening scenes. “It’s so lost these days. There’s so much sameness. Everything is homogenized. I hate it.”
Throughout the film, Apfel also ruminates on physical beauty. She recalls one woman telling her, “You’ll never be pretty, but you have style.” Many have told her she’s ugly.
In her warm but candid way, Apfel notes, “I don’t happen to like pretty. Most of the world isn’t with me, but I don’t care.”
After seeing this film, I’d imagine most of the world is with Apfel — and we’re waiting to see what she wears next.
IRIS opens Friday, May 29, at Bijou Art Cinemas, 492 E. 13th Ave.