Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on May 17, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the Nassau County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Nassau County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



Iris Apfel: Rare Bird of Fashion

by Franklin Hill Perrell


Iris Apfel: Rare Bird of Fashion does not portray a given period of art, a singular artistic style, geographic locale or episode in history. Instead, it is a testament to one woman's unique and radical taste, and her ability to take the daily, often mundane, act of dressing and render it a living work of art. In many ways, Iris Apfel blurs the boundaries between art and fashion. She incorporates the formal aspects of visual art, adding architectural and sculptural forms, a range of colorful palettes and rhythms of repeated or varied designs that are enlivened by associations or meanings evoked by recognizable images and objects. Like a painter or sculptor who throws off establishment strictures in order to achieve recognition, Iris boldly blends elements with an inventiveness that declares she is truly a rule-breaking judge of taste. History is full of rebels who have brought forth and established new trends in fashion, as well as in the visual arts. Rarely has one individual achieved the originality of Iris Apfel: her creations encompass and transcend all styles that have come before. In a sense, she has made her mark by revealing her essential self, expressed dramatically through texture, color and the variety implicit in each of her one-of-a-kind assemblages. These idiosyncratic fashions carve out an idiom that is instantly recognizable as her own; through boldness and a singularity of flair, Iris' pairings distinguish themselves in a way that few can ever match.

This exhibition features Iris' celebrated personal collection and makes a comprehensive and exotic statement about her as tastemaker extraordinaire. She has been frequently featured in Vogue and W and is a particular favorite of The New York Times' Bill Cunningham. At 86, she has enjoyed a life-long career in fashion, beginning as co-founder with her husband, Carl, of Old World Weavers, whose clients included Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Babe Paley and Marjorie Merriweather Post, among others. An omnivorous collector, she is especially known for her eccentric, over-the-top fusions of clothing from haute designers with exotic treasures from her extensive travels. Iris' signature talent is to pair couture from big names like Galanos, Norell, Ralph Rucci, Bill Blass, Gianfranco Ferre, Lanvin, Galiano, Krizia, Fendi and Dior with Tibetan suede boots, African wall hangings, Chinese folk art necklaces, Bolivian tin fish, bakelite bracelets, and over-scale turquoise jewelry or elaborate costume jewels.

The Nassau County Museum of Art (NCMA) showing follows the 2007 exhibition at West Palm Beach's Norton Museum of Art, where it proved to be one of the most popular of all time. The concept was first conceived by Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who staged the first Apfel exhibition in 2006. Here on Long Island, the show has a totally fresh presentation, having been adapted to our space by Iris herself, along with guest curator JoAnne Olian, in collaboration with the museum's staff and the endlessly resourceful talents of designer Joe Pescatore. The exhibition's sponsor, Loehmann's, has long been an Apfel resource for ferreting out designer treasures.

The NCMA exhibition affords an appreciation of many facets of Iris Apfel's talent. More than 90 eclectic costumes are displayed throughout the museum on mannequins modeled after Iris' elegantly tall and thin silhouette. Each is brilliantly accessorized and adorned with her signature and impressive eyeglasses. The show begins in the main lobby with the theme of a fashion shoot, and then proceeds through the galleries with a fashion runway; a Moroccan souk; a nightclub; the Arctic, where an Iris mannequin emerges on all fours from an igloo wearing a Mongolian lamb coat; a circus complete with a tiger and a figure astride an ostrich; a leather room with a medieval gothic theme, and finally, Iris Apfel's salon where the central figure reclines on an Empire sofa in surroundings that hearken back to her first career as an interior decorator. Every inch of the show is stimulating and captivating with a look that completely engages audiences in an unprecedented aesthetic experience.

About the author:

Franklin Hill Perrell is the Nassau County Museum of Art's Chief Curator.



Additional images from the exhibition







All above photos are of objects from the exhibition Iris Apfel: Rare Bird of Fashion, which opens on May 20, and remains on view through September 7, 2008 at the Nassau County Museum of Art. Photos courtesy of Nassau County Museum of Art.


Editor's note:

This essay was authored in conjunction with the exhibition Iris Apfel: Rare Bird of Fashion which opens on May 20, and remains on view through September 7, 2008 at the Nassau County Museum of Art. For further texts concerning the exhibition please click here.

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