A joyous celebration of creativity and razor-sharp wit sustained into old age, as evinced by outspoken nonagenarian fashion icon Iris Apfel, “Iris” also offers proof of Albert Maysles’ continued vitality as a documentarian. Doubtless a close collaboration between filmmaker and subject, this character study proves as visually strong as it is verbally compelling. Iris likens assembling the elements of her signature “looks” — eclectic mixes of exotic fabrics and outlandish costume jewelry — to jazz improvisation, and certainly nobody sounds a false note in this thoroughly enjoyable riff, which should charm clotheshorses and nudists alike.
In contrast with Albert and his late brother David Maysles’ famous study of another fashionista, Edie Bouvier Beale in 1975’s “Grey Gardens,” there’s little distance between the way Iris consciously presents herself and the way the camera perceives her. This is not to deny the considerable compositional and editorial skills deployed to make it appear that the camera is merely following along in Iris’ majestic wake. But her entire career has centered around various forms of presentation, which she never confused with personal identity.
“It is more important to be happy than to be ‘well dressed,’” she resoundingly declares. Not only does her uniquely mad approach to fashion make her happy, but a shared, slightly absurdist sense of style also cements her successful 66-year marriage to hubby Carl, who turns 100 during the course of the film. If the couple’s spacious Park Avenue apartment is dedicated to their shared passion, housing several department stores’ worth of clothing and accessories, their Florida digs reflect a more playful love of the freaky, kitschy or just plain ridiculous. In the words of good friend and photographer Bruce Weber, “It’s the perfect house for two children.”
Iris’ creativity lies not in inventing anything new, but in her startling assemblages of found objects. Her illustrious career as an interior designer included consultations with multiple successive inhabitants of the White House (her unspecified “problems” with Jackie Kennedy are allowed to pass in charged silence), while offbeat items stored in a massive Long Island City warehouse reflect a long, varied history of catering to more adventurous upscale clients.
Carl’s 16mm footage and Nikon-shot still photographs document the couple’s twice-yearly globetrotting shopping trips to out-of-the-way bazaars, flea markets and assorted outposts in search of the eye-catching and off-kilter. A priest’s vestments, for instance, might be bought and repurposed as loungewear. Maysles captures Iris’ present-day shopping expeditions as, squired by designer Duro Olowu, she ventures into no less esoteric, off-the-beaten-path venues in Harlem, whose neighborhood churchwomen’s “Sunday best” she emphatically favors over the uniform black paraded in Soho.
Iris’ love of craftsmanship, which she sees disappearing under a flood of homogenization and conformity, led her and Carl to found Old World Weavers, a actory that reproduced unique 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century fabrics and designs — well known, as was Iris herself, within the trade. But it took a 2005 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, titled “Rara Avis: The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” spearheaded by fashion scholar Harold Koda, to transform her, in her own wry epithet, into “an octogenarian starlet” and to elevate her “improvisations” to the status of wondrous creations.
Maysles and his subject conspire to keep the downside of the Apfels’ advanced old age largely offscreen, not out of denial — Iris briefly mentions their struggles with illnesses and deterioration — but because its sidelining has proven essential to her presentations, which help her triumph over pain. Even though her upright posture and imposing presence perfectly offset her inspired ensembles and make her an ideal model for the mythic, even grotesque creations of certain modern designers, Iris professes no affection for the “pretty” and never considered herself such. Perhaps this explains the atypical kinship between her and the 87-year-old Maysles, a longtime champion of the unusual over the pretty, as Iris constantly tries to lure him from behind the camera and out their collaboration.