Listening to Iris Apfel describe her high school days in Astoria, Queens, ditching class to go shopping instead, reminded me of my senior year at Bais Yaakov High School of Queens (now Shevach). I was voted “most likely to shop” in my yearbook, because I thought Thursday and Friday afternoons were meant for exploring department stores on 34th Street in Manhattan such as B. Altman’s and Ohrbach’s.
I believe I found my spirit animal in Iris with feathered boas, gem-studded leather pants, multicolored furs, stacks of dimensional bracelets, Cleopatra collars, and signature black round eyewear. I’m certain that I made the right choice in my selection, as I’m surely not alone in my sentiments. Ivan Bart, president of IMG Models and IMG Fashion Properties, said, “Iris is an icon with immeasurable talent. She radiates creativity and inspiration and we’re so excited to explore new and unique opportunities with her, where her natural gifts can be shared with the world. At 97 years old, Iris continues to prove that age is just a number and shouldn’t be something that defines you.”
I can’t tell you how many times matchmakers, good friends, and even family members would refer to me as “a rare bird” that not many people appreciate and is often misunderstood. Through the years, I always wondered if this terminology was meant as a compliment towards my individuality, or as a criticism of my rebelliousness. Along comes this fashion icon and changes my perception completely.
In 2005, Apfel was the first living person who was not a designer to have her clothing and accessories exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in an exhibition titled “Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel.” The exhibition was so successful that it traveled to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, New York, and later to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The collection will find its permanent home in a dedicated gallery at The Museum of Lifestyle and Fashion in Boynton Beach, Florida. The ultimate gesture of appreciation of her eternal style status is her own doll. In 2018, Mattel created a Barbie doll in Apfel’s image, making her the oldest person to ever have a Barbie modeled for her.
Last week, I had the time of my life with her at Bijoux in Palm Beach, Florida. The contemporary art jewelry sale at the Armory Art Center that featured 36 jewelry artists from around the world - plus Apfel. The show is founded and produced by Donna Schneier, also known as my MamaDonna. To be able to work with these two women together was a dream come true! I couldn’t write up the sales fast enough for the women that flocked to Iris’s area. They all wanted a piece of her style. “Did she really wear this?” There were about 300 pieces from her personal collection for sale at the show. A beautiful young woman bought a double peacock enamel neckpiece for $1200 on the condition that she could take a picture with Iris. They showered her with gifts, paintings, and praise. They told her stories and recommended doctors, restaurants, and manicurists.
This is a now-98-year-old woman who started her own textile company, Old World Weavers, in 1950 with her late husband, Carl. Aside from having a hand in nine restoration projects at the White House during her multi-decade career, she has racked up her share of ad campaigns in recent years, including Kate Spade, MAC Cosmetics, Alexis Bittar, HSN, and many more. She has no intention of stopping anytime soon! Listing her accomplishments would take another two pages. There is her book, “Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon” which launched at Bergdorf’s last year with her own windows and a pop-up shop, a project with Bernardaud, and a collaboration with a Istanbul-based glassware company called Nude. And we can’t forget the award-winning documentary “Iris” or the Apfel Hall at the Costume Institute in Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It has been a special privilege for me to have witnessed, on an intimate level, the adoration, respect, inspiration, and motivation she provides to her fans, consumers, followers, and audience. Transcending age to reach generations of women (and some men) with her extraordinary message of sheer “fabulousness.”
I learned a valuable lesson in marketing and branding. Authenticity is the key to success. Iris is what Iris is without filters, fuss, fears or fake. There is a message here that reflects what G-d wants from us on a daily basis. Each day is an opportunity to live to the fullest, especially in joy. G-d listens to the prayers of those that live in joy (simcha). Iris lives in joy that is channeled through her style, wit, colors, and presence.
At the end of her interview, she said “Live everyday like it’s your last because one day you will be right.”
I flew back home to Kew Gardens Hills with a renewed sense of self and purpose. I might be a rare bird, but I’m going to fly happily every day and appreciate the wisdom of Iris Apfel.
Tobi Rubinstein is a retired fashion and marketing executive of 35 years who currently produces runway and lifestyle events for NYFW, specializing in Israel’s leading artists and designers. She is the founder of The House of Faith N Fashion, fusing culture and Torah. Tobi was a fashion collaboration and guest expert for ABC, Geraldo Rivera, Huffington Post, Lifetime, NBC, Bravo, and Arise. She hosted her own radio and reality TV series. Tobi is a mother, wife, dog owner, and shoe lover.