Iris Apfel, the subject of the new documentary Iris, is a 90-year-old fashion designer who embodies her grandfather’s adage: “A woman is only as old as she looks (and a man is only old when he stops looking).” Sure, her wiry frame and wrinkled face may give her away, but Iris is as youthful and energetic as someone who has discovered their life’s calling. Work is hard, and it takes a lot out of everyone, but good work can also prop you up. Just look at Iris. There’s no sign of stopping her.
In Iris, the Rare Bird of Fashion—as she is often known—is frank and fun with her past, opening up to the camera and revealing her secrets, even offering up her origin story to the camera. When Iris was young, she would peruse the aisles of Loehmann’s designer store in Brooklyn—which, coincidentally, celebrated its 90th anniversary with Iris’ 90th birthday—and met Frieda Loehmann. Loehmann told Iris, “You’re not pretty, and you’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. You have something much better. You have style.”
Style is exactly what Iris had and still has. Soon after she met and married her husband, Carl (who celebrates his centennial in the documentary), they started a company, Old World Weavers, and made it a smashing success. Iris’s name became synonymous with interior design and iconic fashion, with shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, side gigs on restoration projects, visiting professorships, and, most notably, working for the White House under Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton.
But Iris’s accomplishments are not really what Iris is about. Instead, documentarian Albert Maysles follows the 90-year-old fashion icon around Manhattan and Palm Beach, letting her tell her story. That often means describing in detail the clothing items that she chooses to wear, where she procures them, how much they cost, and what they mean to her. There is nothing that Iris would wear without first thinking about it, and there isn’t anything in Iris’s life that isn’t thought out.
Movies are often about their creators as much as they are their subjects, and well thought out work doesn’t just describe Iris, but Maysles as well. There is a moment late in Iris that might be the most personal and telling of the documentary: a New York designer, Mickey Boardman, addressing a group of fashion students: “If you mean business, New York is the place for you. If you mean business, people will take you seriously.” Iris editor, Paul Lovelace, then cuts to a shot (most likely taken from additional cameraman Sean Price Williams’ perspective) of Maysles reflected in a window. Per usual, Maysles has a camera in his hand and his eye in the viewfinder, viewing the world as he did for over the 70-plus movies he shot and the 30-plus documentaries he directed.
Albert Maysles and his brother David (who died in 1987) are pillars of the documentary world. Their contributions are often referred to as “direct cinema,” which is one of discovery, not direction. They were critics who chose cameras over pens and established a series of rules that defined their work. To quote Albert, “Remember, as a documentarian, you are an observer. An author but not a director. A discoverer, not a controller.”
That spirit embodies all of Maysles’ work, but it takes on a special meaning in Iris. It is about two iconic artists in the twilight of their lives reflecting on their work and how they continue to explore it. For Iris, that means more teaching, more designing, and constantly perusing second-hand stores. For Maysles, it means an ever-moving camera, constantly searching for something to grab on to. Not out of boredom, but excitement and wonder.
Iris concludes with one such shot, a long following shot of Iris, who has decided she’s said enough for one night, and with her back to Maysles, she walks through the house to her bedroom. Maysles follows, wondering if there is anything left to say. There isn’t, but there is always something left to see. That was where the genius in his contribution lied, and it’s all right there in the closing shot.
Albert Maysles died in his Manhattan home on March 5, 2015. He was 88.
Directed by: Albert Maysles
Produced by: Jennifer Ash Rudick, Laura Coxson, Rebekah Maysles
Starring: Iris Apfel, Carl Apfel
Magnolia Pictures, Not Rated, Running time 78 minutes, Opens May 15, 2015.