Eye-Opening Documentary Spotlights Jewish Fashionista


A new documentary opening locally this week examines the forces that combined to make Iris Apfel into a self-described "geriatric starlet."

Iris Apfel is a model for the high-end MAC cosmetics line. She is friends with iconic fashion photographer Bruce Weber and does public appearances to talk about fashion with Tavi Gevenson, the teen prodigy and founder/editor of the online fashion magazine, Rookie.

Apfel, who is Jewish, also co-created Old World Weavers, a groundbreaking textiles firm that did interior design work for nine consecutive residents of the White House, from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton. She has been the subject of books, window displays at Bergdorf Goodman and, most notably, a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to her inimitable sense of style.

In short, the 93-year-old Manhattan and Palm Beach resident is larger than life — movie-screen size, to be precise. Now Apfel, who has designers like Dries Van Noten and Kate Spade clamoring to work with her so that their collections can benefit from a sui generis acumen that leads her to pair 19th-century church vestments with flea-market bead necklaces, her own handmade slippers and her trademark owlish glasses, is the subject of a new documentary, Iris, opening locally this week.

The film, one of the last directed by the great documentarian Albert Maysles before his death at age 88 in March, is an examination of the internal and external forces that combined to make Apfel into, in her own words, “a geriatric starlet.” A love of accessories that began as a child was encouraged by none other than Frieda Loeh­mann at her original eponymous off-price shrine in Brooklyn in the 1930s. As Apfel recalls in the film, one day Loehmann was perched on a stool so high that it looked like she was officiating a tennis match. “She called over and said, ‘Young lady, I’ve been watching you. You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. You have something much better: You have style.’ ”

Maysles follows Apfel through the different permutations and generations of that style. He and his crew accompany her to a Har­lem boutique, where she nonchalantly hondels for artisan handbags. They spend a day with her as visiting professor for the University of Texas, schlepping awestruck college students to meet tastemakers from all corners of the industry. And they spend time with her beloved centenarian husband, Carl, who, thanks to her selections from couture like Etro and Versace, is impressively attired as well.

In addition to focusing on Apfel herself, Maysles conducts interviews with those who work with and have been influenced by her, and who clearly love being in her orbit. The result, filmed between 2010 to 2014, is an appealingly intimate portrait of someone who has impacted countless people by dint of not allowing anyone to influence her own style.

This was not by design, says Maysles’ daughter and the film’s producer, Rebekah. “They first filmed for about a year and then had a lull because they didn’t have any funds to make it,” she explains. “For my father, it was really hard to raise money. No one has any idea how difficult it was for him to do so, even with his name.”

That name was responsible for ushering in the modern era of “fly on the wall” documentary filmmaking through works like Salesman, which followed four Bible salesmen in the 1960s, and Grey Gardens, the 1975 masterpiece about Little Edie and Big Edie Bouvier that is still shown in theaters to this day. (Both films are preserved as part of the collection of the Library of Congress.)

Maysles says that the opening of Iris — the first of her father’s documentaries to receive a wide theatrical release since Grey Gardens — is bittersweet. “He knew it was going to be distributed, and having it in theaters is wonderful,” she says, but she laments that he didn’t live long enough to see it open.

Her father, who worked right up until he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, found some solace during his illness by spending time with his family and reconnecting with a Jewish tradition from his childhood. “When he got sick,” she says, “we had Shabbat dinners every Friday — an old friend of his would come over to help” with the observance.

The 38-year-old Maysles has been involved with her father’s work since she returned to New York City after a number of years spent living in Philadelphia both during and after attending Tyler School of Art.

“My dad was downsizing his office in Midtown, and he was thinking about moving to Har­lem. My brother started teaching a class at City College on documentary film, and we all decided it would be really amazing to start a nonprofit.”

The result is the Maysles Institute, which shows documentaries from around the world and provides instruction for everyone from first-timers to master classes, many led by Albert Maysles himself.

Rebekah Maysles has stepped back from working full-time at the institute — which she says will go on without the presence of her father — to focus on her own art, which has included an intricately designed book on Grey Gardens and a cookbook by New York chef and Harlem neighbor Marcus Samuelsson. But she is staying involved with her father’s legacy by spearheading the effort to organize and preserve the films he made with his brother and on his own so that the public will always have access to them. That includes Iris, which, she says, is a succinct summation not only of its subject’s iconoclastic approach to work and life, but also her father’s dedication to letting the craft speak for itself.

“Working on this film, I learned about the way to work, to be true to yourself and how to care about being an individual and being clear about what you want,” she says. “It is really amazing to watch her walk down the street — no one cared about us and the camera — just her outfits.”


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