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Celebrated stylemaker and self-named 'geriatric starlet' Iris Apfel dies at age 102

Iris Apfel in New York City in 2012.
Andrew H. Walker
/
Getty Images
Iris Apfel in New York City in 2012.

If only every life could be as lavishly lived as Iris Apfel's. The celebrated interior designer, entrepreneur and late-in-life fashion model died in Palm Beach on Friday, her representatives confirmed. She was 102 years old.

Born Iris Barrel in 1921, she was brought up in Queens, New York. The daughter of a successful small business owner, she studied art and art history before working as a copywriter for Women's Wear Daily.

With her husband Carl, Apfel started a textile and fabric reproduction business in 1950. Her firm managed White House restoration projects for nine presidents, ranging from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton.

Known for her charisma and work ethic, Apfel's distinctive style — the bushels of bracelets, the piles of necklaces, plus those signature saucer-sized, heavy-framed glasses – helped propel her into late-in-life fashion celebrity, or a "geriatric starlet," as she often referred to herself.

Apfel's star only brightened as she aged. At 90, she was teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. At age 94, she was the subject of a well-reviewed documentary by Albert Maysles (Iris.) At age 97, she became a professional fashion model, represented by a top agency, IMG. She modeled for Vogue Italia, Kate Spade and M.A.C, and the time of her passing, was the oldest person to have had a Barbie doll made by Mattel in her image.

A society grand dame who was not above selling scarves and jewelry on the Home Shopping Network, Apfel received a 2005 retrospective at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel was a first for the museum in showcasing clothes and accessories created by a living non-fashion designer.

Her autobiography, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon, was published in 2018.

Ina 2015 NPR story, Apfel told correspondent Ina Jaffe that she took pride in having inspired people over the years. She remembered meeting one woman who exclaimed that Apfel had changed her life.

"She said I learned that if I don't have to dress like everybody else, I do not have to think like everybody else," the designer recalled with glee. "And I thought, boy, if I could do that for a few people, I accomplished something."

Her agent Lori Sale called the designer a "visionary."

"She saw the world through a unique lens – one adorned with giant, distinctive spectacles that sat atop her nose. Through those lenses, she saw the world as a kaleidoscope of color, a canvas of patterns and prints. Her artistic eye transformed the mundane into the extraordinary and her ability to blend the unconventional with the elegant was nothing short of magical," she said in a statement.

"She became a beacon for so many people," jewelry designer Alexis Bittar said in a statement shared by Sale. "Through living her life on her own terms it messaged to women that they don't need to hide in the shadows as they age, they actually can continue to glow and get better at what they do and look like."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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