What do Iris Apfel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Isabella Blow, Diana Vreeland and Jenna Lyons all have in common? These grande dames of fashion spent their early years bemoaning their appearance. The connection isn’t surprising. It’s natural to throw distraction in the face of a perceived deficit: who will notice that your eyes are too close together, or your nose too long, or your legs too thick if you are dressed like a goddess? There is no doubt that Iris, the subject of a new documentary by the late Albert Maysles, dresses spectacularly. Her careers as a textile designer and interior decorator have given her a fine eye and she and her singular wardrobe became such darlings of the fashion world that they had their own exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2005. You might assume—as I did—that a film about a woman who cares deeply about how she looks, and who dresses to be noticed, would err on the side of vapidity. But, like me, you would be wrong.
Maysles and his brother made a habit of using charismatic oddballs as the subjects of the documentaries they co-directed: the sad-sack Bible peddlers in “Salesman” (1969), the two rich and reclusive Edith Beales in “Grey Gardens” (1975), and the Rolling Stones in “Gimme Shelter” (1970). It becomes clear within the opening moments of “Iris” that this is a kinder, and perhaps less exploitative, variation on that theme. The bond that the nonagenarian Iris shares with her husband Carl is the kind that keeps Match.com in business—hands are held, kisses shared, tales of journeys taken together recounted, and each knows the other’s preferred brand of yoghurt. Their apartments are stuffed, floor to ceiling, with artworks and detritus collected over a lifetime together. We get to know the Iris underneath the praying-mantis glasses and the flamboyant necklaces that drip from her neck like candle wax. She’s a woman everyone would want as their wise relation and never takes herself too seriously. “It is better to be happy”, she tells the photographer Bruce Weber, “than well dressed.”
The film is preoccupied with old age: Iris, who refers to herself as a “geriatric starlet”, is 93. Her husband celebrates his century during the course of the film, and Maysles, who passed away in March, was 87 when he made it. But even in her nineties Iris is full of vitality. She totters from photo shoots to interviews; pokes around dollar stores for bargains; relives times spent decorating the homes of the rich and famous (we learn Jackie O was a nightmare client); teaches students from the University of Texas; and attends events with fashionable friends including J.Crew’s boss Jenna Lyons and Harold Koda of the Met’s Costume Institute. She cracks jokes and dispenses advice: “Colour can raise the dead”, “My mother worshipped at the altar of the accessory”. You quickly learn to lean in and listen.
Although we are often told that the elderly deserve veneration, it is its absence that catches your attention here. In one scene, a presenter speaks to her as you might to a three-year-old; in another we catch her young students’ dismissive glances. These moments jar with the Iris we see—as a creative and talented woman, she deserves more respect. She is, however, smart enough to notice. “That’s so nice to hear,” she replies drily, a perfect beat after a particularly patronising comment from the presenter, “makes a girl feel there’s still a chance.” And her repeated claims that she hates the fuss fool no one: “She loves it,” the jewellery designer Alexis Bittar says, simply. Iris blossoms under the spotlight.
Old age for Iris, though, is also a time for reflection. We see her combing through collections of clothes and quirky antiques built up over a lifetime and slowly, painfully giving them away to museums or selling them. Her life has, in a way, been lived through her objects: a Tibetan jacket, a dog statue, a picture of a monkey that looks like a former client. Each outfit and knick-knack is both aide memoire and storytelling prop. They are an expression of her charisma, and it is this quality that makes spending 80 minutes in her company so enjoyable.
Iris is out in America now and will be in British cinemas from July 31st