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Iris Apfel: 'Oldest Barbie' And Iconic New York Fashion Figure Known For Unique Style, Dies At 102

Iris Apfel, the oldest barbie and a beloved New York fashion icon renowned for her distinctive style, including her iconic black-rimmed glasses, has passed away at 102. Her remarkable life journey traversed art, design, and culture, leaving an indelible mark on the fashion world.

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Fashion Icon Iris Apfel Dies At The Age Of 102 Photo: @iris.apfel/ Instagram
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Iris Apfel, the pioneering textile artist and iconic figure of New York City known for her distinctive style, notably her large black-rimmed glasses, passed away on Friday at her home in Palm Beach, Florida. She was 102 years old.

Renowned for her unique taste, Apfel was celebrated with museum exhibitions, including one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005, and featured in various media such as a 2007 coffee table book, a groundbreaking 2012 MAC Cosmetics campaign, and a 2014 documentary.

She collaborated with nine First Ladies on design restoration projects at the White House, utilizing fabrics from Old World Weavers, the textile company she co-founded with her late husband, Carl Apfel.

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A true New Yorker, Apfel was born Iris Barrel on August 29, 1921, as the only child of Jewish farmers in Queens. Raised in a creative environment, her father operated a mirror and glass business, while her mother owned a clothing boutique, fostering her artistic inclinations from a young age.

Even at the age of 12, she ventured into Manhattan via subway on Thursday afternoons to indulge in window shopping, an experience she fondly recalled 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 recalled in the interview.

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Continuing, she said, “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 pursued art history at New York University before transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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

In 1950, Iris and Carl established Old World Weavers, two years into their marriage.

The couple shared a passion for traveling the world together, seeking inspiration and sourcing items for both leisure and design projects. The inception of their company drew from the distinctive designs they encountered during their journeys to places like North Africa and Europe, as highlighted by The Inside.

Among their notable clients were Estee Lauder, Faye Dunaway, and Greta Garbo, as reported by the outlet.

Despite being well-known within New York City circles, Apfel achieved widespread recognition later in life — precisely at the age of 84 when she was approached for a museum exhibit.

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Iris Apfel Photo: Getty Images
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In 2005, Apfel received a call from Harold Koda, a fashion scholar and curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

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With a previously scheduled exhibit canceled, Koda, aware of Apfel's renowned collection of costume jewelry, invited her to curate an exhibit, as detailed 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. It featured 40 pieces from her personal collection, including a Gripoix brooch and a pair of 18th-century paste earrings.

“An American original in the truest sense, Iris Apfel is one of the most vivacious personalities in the worlds of fashion, textiles, and interior design, and over the past 40 years, she has cultivated a personal style that is both witty and exuberantly idiosyncratic,” noted the museum. They further remarked that her “originality” is evident in her adept combination of high-end and more accessible fashion elements.

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Iris Apfel Photo: @iris.apfel/ Instagram
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“With remarkable panache and discernment, she combines colors, textures, and patterns without regard to period, provenance, and, ultimately, aesthetic conventions,” the museum continued. “Paradoxically, her richly layered combinations — even at their most extreme and baroque – project a boldly graphic modernity.”

Fond of dubbing herself a "geriatric starlet," Apfel's prominence soared following her exhibition at the Met.

In 2007, she became the focal point of a coffee table book aptly titled "Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel," drawing from the Latin translation of "Rara avis."

Building on the success of "Rara Avis," she collaborated with MAC Cosmetics to develop a line of lipsticks. Additionally, in 2011, she launched her own fashion line, humorously named "Rara Avis by Iris Apfel," in homage to her renowned exhibit.

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In 2014, her remarkable life became the subject of a documentary titled "Iris," crafted by the acclaimed filmmaker Albert Maysles. The documentary garnered acclaim and was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2017, marking one of Maysles' final works before his passing in 2015 at the age of 88.

Reflecting on the documentary in 2015, Apfel shared with The Cut, “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.”

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“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.”

Often labeling herself as an "accidental icon," Apfel also bestowed this title upon her 2018 memoir.

In the same year, Mattel honored her with a Barbie doll for International Women’s Day, a remarkable feat considering she was 96 at the time, making her the oldest individual to inspire a Barbie doll.

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Iris Apfel Barbie Photo: @iris.apfel/ Instagram
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Among her diverse artistic collaborations are ventures with Ruggable, a machine-washable rug retailer, Ciaté London, a makeup company, and H&M, a clothing brand.

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In 2021, Iris Apfel marked her 100th birthday atop the 100th floor of Central Park Tower, as reported by “TODAY.” The celebration attracted a star-studded guest list including Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, Katie Holmes, Barbie Ferreira, Alexis Bittar, and other notable figures.

The iconic fashion figure was married to Carl Apfel from 1948 until his passing in 2015 at the age of 100, just a few days shy of his 101st birthday. The couple did not have any children.

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