Iris Apfel glasses collection

Eyewear Icons: Iris Apfel

From the relaxed prep of JFK, to Francois Hardy’s Gallic minimalism, we’re often told that less is more when it comes to style. Iris Apfel proves otherwise—and the 101 year old has earned legend status with a full-on maximalist approach with her trademark chunky round-framed specs and huge gold chains that rival the local mayor’s. Her motto? “More is more, and less is a bore.”

Dressing like a magpie that's had first dibs at the car boot sale, the centenarian is living proof that growing old doesn’t mean settling into lazy afternoons wearing beige cardigans and comfortable slacks—and whilst most people slow down in their later years, she’s seemingly as busy as ever. In just the last few years she’s managed to publish her memoir, signed to a modelling agency and became the oldest woman to receive the slightly bizarre honour of having a Barbie doll made in their image. 

'She’s one of those people you’ll instantly recognise, even if you’ve got no idea who she actually is, or what she’s done.'

Like the late street-style photographer Bill Cunningham and his infamous blue work-jacket or Fran Leibovitch and her trademark cowboy boots, the image of Iris Apfel and her signature specs is embedded deep into the core of the Big Apple—as New York as bagels, yellow cabs and ridiculously expensive rent. She’s one of those people you’ll instantly recognise, even if you’ve got no idea who she actually is, or what she’s done.

When you look at her history it’s maybe not much of a surprise that young Iris became a style icon. Born in Queens all the way back in 1921, her boutique-owning mum encouraged her to go her own way, and by her teenage years she was spending her spare time hunting down unique clothes in thrift stores and flea markets—pre-dating the current youth fascination with vintage gear by nearly a century, back when ‘90s style’ meant the 1890s.

From there she worked as a fashion writer and interior designer, before launching a textile firm with her husband (and fellow snappy dresser) Carl. Alright, a textiles firm doesn’t sound like much of an exciting thing to write about—but Old World Weavers was different. Born out of the Apfels’ love of the hunt, Old World went against 50s trends like pastel hues or stripped-back modernism in favour of rare fabrics and patterns they’d found on their travels as they scoured European flea markets and Moroccan souks for rarities. 

“For some reason, unusual spectacle frames have always fascinated me...” - IA

Thanks to the hyper-opulent, ultra-exotic nature of their wares, Old World quickly became the go-to fabric-finders for the seriously wealthy—with clients like Greta Garbo and Faye Dunaway relying on them to deck-out their gaffs in the swankiest, most lavish fabrics around. Oh yeah, and they were responsible for redecorating the White House during not one, but nine presidencies, looking after the interiors of perhaps the world’s most famous abode.

But what about the glasses? Okay—they didn’t actually come until later, and although it’s probably hard to imagine her without those big ol’ specs, she only started needing ‘em in the early 70s. Luckily a lifetime of hoarding was on her side, and before even needing a prescription she had amassed an almighty collection of rare frames from around the globe which she’d wear without lenses at parties.

“For some reason, unusual spectacle frames have always fascinated me,” she wrote in her memoir. “Whenever I saw unique ones, I would buy them and put them in an old shoebox of my mother's that I kept in a closet. Many years later, when I was much older and truly needed them, I thought, Well if I'm going to have to wear glasses, I might as well have GLASSES. So I took out the biggest pair I had, and I had lenses put into them."

Since then she’s rarely been seen without a pair of these most-definitely all-caps-worthy ‘GLASSES’—and whilst she’s clearly got a huge collection of eyewear, from oversized polka-dot wayfarers to super-chunky round frames you could eat your dinner off, they all have one thing in common—they’re massive. Iris Apfel might not be a minimalist, but just like Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein or anyone known for their singular style, she still has a uniform of sorts… it’s just her uniform is a whole lot more off the wall then black roll-neck jumpers and blue jeans.

Following the rule of having no rules, she ignores period or provenance to combine eyewear, jewellery and clothes from anywhere and everywhere into a true democratic hotpot. This unique ‘anything goes’ style is what has probably led to her being known as ‘the rare bird of fashion’—and in 2005 the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated a whole exhibition to her eclectic collection. By dressing for herself, she has sidestepped dull things like trends or fashion in favour of fun. As she says herself, “When the fun goes out of dressing, you might as well be dead.” Clearly the fun hasn’t stopped yet.