Iris idolises Iris Apfel. So, it seems, does everyone else. At a glitzy fashion event, J.Crew creative director Jenna Lyons and fashion-enthusiast and hip-hop legend Kanye West alike dote on her. “She’s the perfect example of the intersection of fashion and interior design and art,” says one of documentarian Albert Maysles’ talking heads breathily. All this for a woman whose talents appear – to this fashion pleb – to consist of throwing colourful shit together like she was an infant raiding her parents’ closet.
Granted, that unbridled, childish creativity is a large part of the appeal of Ms Apfel, who’s invariably dressed head to toe in a cavalcade of gaudy fabrics, elaborate couture jewellery and brilliant bracelets. One of the many ornaments decorating her house reads, “Playing dress up begins at age five and never truly ends.” I may not have the fashion nouse to appreciate her apparent talents – unlike seemingly every other New Yorker – but it’s hard not to be charmed by her irrepressible energy. She’s a five year-old in a ninety year-old’s body.
I was strongly reminded of Gracie Otto’s The Last Impresario, a documentary about once-legendary theatre/film producer Michael White, watching Iris. Both films are about an intensely creative individual basking in the afterglow of their earlier glories. There’s a difference, of course; White has been largely forgotten outside of the upper echelon of the European art world, while Apfel remains feted and celebrated by fashion-conscious A-listers everywhere. This, I think, grants Maysles’ film greater potential than Otto’s; where The Last Impresario was obliged to chronicle White’s achievements in careful detail, Iris is content to allow its subject’s style to speak for herself.
Here’s the problem, though – both films don’t let their subjects say enough. I saw The Last Impresario at a Q&A with its director, and honestly Otto’s discussion post-screening was an order of magnitude more interesting than the film itself. Details that were implied or obscured in the film itself were revealed in fascinating detail, whether White’s flirtatious relationship with the director (herself a stunning, blonde ex-model – not generally relevant when discussing one’s directorial skills, but integral to this particular film), or the ex-producer’s tenuous, desperate grip on his fame, the way he would rely on his reputation to skip out on bills and duck into clubs.
Iris, meanwhile, is handicapped by Apfel’s persistent costume. I’m not merely referring to her outfits, but her carefully-crafted atmosphere of performance, a precise mixture of confidence, modesty and charming childhood naïveté. Despite venturing into her home, despite carrying out casual twilight conversations with Apfel and her husband, Maysles never quite punctures that veil of performance. Perhaps that’s the point – after a half-century or more as artist and artwork alike, there’s nothing but performance to Apfel’s persona. But I’m not convinced that’s an argument that the film convincingly makes.
Still, as per usual when it comes to films set in the fashion world, take these reservations with a hefty helping of salt; I basically don’t understand fashion in any way, and this is a pretty substantial handicap with a film about a woman whose life is, fundamentally, fashion.