When Iris Apfel comes to town, Paris pays attention. Just last night, Azzedine Alaïa hosted an intimate dinner in her honor. And while that alone might seem like motive enough to jump on a seven hour flight, the initial reason the 94-year-old interior designer-turned-fashion icon traveled to the City of Light was to fete Iris in Paris, her new collaboration with Le Bon Marché. Featuring an illustrated window display, an exhibition of some of Apfel’s most memorable ensembles, and a range of products that includes jewelry, handbags, and iterations of her signature saucer-like glasses, the project is not to be missed (so pop by before it wraps on April 16). Before her bash at the department store, we met up with Apfel at Saint Germain’s Hotel Sofitel. Holding court in the lobby, she donned a graphic black and white ensemble comprising vintage trousers, beads and bangles the size of her head, black glasses, black sneakers, and a Gianfranco Ferré top. Here, the famously unfiltered tastemaker talks her latest collaboration, her hatred of social media, Alber Elbaz’s departure from Lanvin, and how fashion has helped her cope during one of the most difficult periods of her life.
Katharine K. Zarrella: When did you arrive in Paris?
Iris Apfel: Yesterday.
KZ: A little jet-lagged?
IA: Oh, I don't know. I was tired before I came.
KZ: Do you remember the first time you came to Paris?
IA: Oh, yeah. I wouldn't forget that. I came here first in '52 and I was enchanted. It was very different then. You had to go to restaurants early. Last night we got to the restaurant at about 8:30 and we were the only ones there. As we were leaving, people started to come in. People eat much later. I think when people eat so late it's a sign of a degenerating society.
KZ: Why's that?
IA: Well, because people go to bed so late and get up the next day and go to work. If they get up then they take a siesta and they're tired when they get up. It doesn't make any sense.
KZ: I'm very excited about your project with Le Bon Marché. How did it come about?
IA: Well, they called me up and said they wanted to do something. I was very flattered because I think it's certainly the greatest department store in Europe, but probably in the world. We have a lot of big department stores [in the States], but not at such a level.
KZ: How do you feel about seeing your likeness everywhere and having all these major brands and institutions asking to work with you?
IA: It's fun. I like it.
KZ: Did you ever expect…
IA: Oh, God no. How would I expect such a stupid thing?
A window display at Le Bon Marché; Photo: BFA.com. View more at BFA.com.
KZ: In addition to the exhibition, you created some objects for Le Bon Marché.
IA: There are a few objects that we're selling. We did a mug, a tote bag, a scarf, my iconic handbag, some simple jewelry with heavy beads, and glasses. And my husband loved these great big black evening bow ties. They're like butterfly ties and you can't get them anymore, so we made those. What else did we make? A coffee table book. Some cards that are fun. They're illustrations of what the windows are like. They're amusing. But I didn't invent penicillin or anything like that.
KZ: I'm curious about the story behind your signature glasses.
IA: There's no special story except that, even as a kid, I loved spectacle frames. I would go to markets and every time I saw an interesting pair, I'd buy the frames. Every once in a while I would take them out and try them on, and I thought they were great accessories. Sometimes I would take out the lenses and just wear the frames, and when I finally needed glasses, I took the biggest pair and had my lenses put in. Everybody would say to me, "Why are you wearing such large ones?" And I got bored with it, so to shut 'em up I said, "The bigger to see you with."
KZ: And now big frames are the hottest things on the market.
IA: They're only about 50 years too slow.
KZ: You're a diehard New Yorker. Which city do you think is the true fashion capital, New York or Paris?
IA: I don't think there's a fashion capital anymore.
KZ: Why not? And how do you think fashion’s changed since you first became interested in it?
IA: A lot of reasons. It's not the same as it used to be. People are getting lazier and lazier and sloppier and sloppier. And nobody cares. I don't think people have the same passion about doing anything. Young people don't want to start at the bottom. Everybody wants the corner office or the red carpet immediately. And if you don't start at the bottom with a craft or an art, you can't get anywhere in life. I think a lot of these kids are media freaks or one-trick ponies. They go to a vintage store and buy something and change the buttons and voila.
KZ: Do you pay attention to what goes down the runways?
IA: Not very much anymore. I really don't have the time. And it's just not the same. When something goes down the runway now, everybody looks alike. And lately, they all look like they're wearing nightgowns.
Inside the Le Bon Marché exhibition; Photo: BFA.com. View more at BFA.com.
KZ: Earlier, you mentioned that you felt like no one cares about fashion and craftsmanship anymore. Why is it important to care about fashion?
IA: I think whatever you do, if you're going to do it you should care about it. Otherwise, forget it. If something isn't worth caring about, why bother? I think fashion is important. It can make a lot of people feel very happy. It's a big industry—it provides a lot of jobs, so I think it should be encouraged. A lot of people want to look pretty, and a lot of people find shopping their favorite indoor sport. I just think it's been approached in the wrong way.
KZ: You get interviewed a lot. What question do you get the most that drives you crazy?
IA: People want roadmaps for everything. Everybody wants to be told how to do everything. "How do you have style?" Come on. One of the prized questions recently came when a big magazine called me up and said, "You know, Kayne West is going to run for President." I said, "Really? That's news to me." And I heard that the night before there was some sort of awards show and he was stoned or drunk or something and said he was going to run for President. So [the magazine] wanted to know how would I redecorate the White House to suit Kanye West. I think that's the dumbest question I ever got. First of all, I was so shocked. I said, "I don't take political questions." But finally, I explained to her very patiently that if we should all be so unlucky, upstairs in his quarters he can do anything he damn well pleases. But the house downstairs is the people's house and it has to look a certain way. When you're doing a historic restoration, whether it's good, bad, or indifferent, it has to be as close as humanly possible to the way it was originally.
KZ: It’s interesting that you say a historic restoration needs to be true to the essence of what it was originally. As someone who is very fashion savvy, what do you think about all these historic houses changing their designers and, as a result, their aesthetics?
IA: I don't follow it. It's all political and I don't understand it. I thought Alber [Elbaz], who I love, was doing so well. And then, all of a sudden, I'm told he's out and I don't know if it's his fault, their fault, whatever. I don't know why they can't leave well enough alone. I do understand, I suppose, that these big houses have to keep their numbers up. I don't know how anybody can do that constantly. And they have to do so many collections. I think it's maddening! I think the whole system is crazy. Why do they need eight collections a year?
Alber Elbaz and Iris Apfel; Photo: BFA.com. View more at BFA.com.
KZ: So much of it is done for the sake of social media. Have you ever dabbled in Facebook or Instagram or any of that jazz?
IA: Not at all. I never even look at it. People tell me I have pages.
KZ: You do. People are obsessed with you. You've got all the pages.
IA: I don't look at them and I don't like social media. I think people are too nosey. I don't care what you had for lunch or who you're sleeping with. It's none of my business. And when dogs and cats have their own pages, I think it's pretty…I love dogs, but you know, in their place. There's a dog I met recently—seriously—and he has a following of about 250,000.
KZ: You mentioned Kanye West earlier. What do you think about the current obsession with celebrity?
IA: I think it's ridiculous. And I get very upset when people call me a celebrity, or when I'm put with people who are celebrities just because of some nonsense. Everybody's a celebrity now and I think worshipping celebrities is really a ridiculous thing. I guess in America, we never had any royalty. Movie stars used to be the royalty and they were glamorous. It's so awful now. Now they have all these other freaks.
KZ: I think the idea of glamour has become very confused.
IA: There's no glamour left.
KZ: Why do you say that?
IA: Why do I say it? Open your eyes! Do you see any?
KZ: Well, you're sitting in front of me.
IA: I'm not talking about me. But people are not glamorous anymore. When people go out at night, they look like a mess. Seriously, young women used to go out of their way if they went out on a date to look pretty. Now they go out looking like rag heaps and their hair is all messed up—even if they go to the hairdresser. My husband used to say they look like they just got out of bed.
KZ: You've been living a very fashionable lifestyle for a while now. Does fashion still excite you?
IA: Anything that's good and unusual excites me. If it's crummy, it doesn't. I went to see a Thom Browne show last year and that excited me. I worship professionalism and I worship things that are very well done and crafted. The setting, the mood, the clothing...it was fantastic. After seeing all the garbage, I just thought it was wonderful. But it doesn't happen too often. Generally, I think the way clothes are made today is an outrage. The prices they charge for the crappy materials, I mean, some of the things cost a fortune and are so horribly made with such poor fabrics. I can't believe it. When people buy it, I guess they have no frame of reference. They don't know what "good" is.
KZ: Last but not least, you do so many projects in the fashion realm, but you don't necessarily need to. Why?
IA: Because I'm enjoying myself. I'm having fun and I love to work. And if people want me to work and I have the opportunity to, then...I just lost my husband whom I was with for 68 years, so it's a little difficult because I have to keep busy. When I'm busy and occupied, I'm not grieving. When I'm alone and whatnot, I can't stand it. So that's why I do it.