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‘Rare Bird of Fashion,’ Iris Apfel makes waves at PEM

Talia Whyte
‘Rare Bird of Fashion,’ Iris Apfel makes waves at PEM

Iris Apfel has been a fashion icon for over 60 years, and now some of her works of art are on display at the Peabody Essex Museum now through February 2010. According to Apfel, never take yourself or your outfit too seriously. (Photos courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

Any woman who has ever worn a pair of jeans has Iris Apfel to thank.  Her career as a fashion icon began when as a young girl growing up in the 1940s she ordered a pair of boy-sized denims from a Wisconsin Army and Navy store.  Her intent was to wear them with a turban and large hoop earrings.

“Since I was 12 years old, if I wanted any clothes, I had to go and find them myself because [my mother] didn’t have any time,” said Apfel in a 2006 interview with “So, it was wonderful training, it was difficult, I’ll never forget my first experience, and it’s made me a very, very good shopper.”

Ever since, Apfel has been setting trends with remarkable creativity and verve, proving that it’s not only what you wear, but also how you wear it. 

“Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel” will be on view at the Peabody Essex Museum now through Feb. 7, 2010, featuring more than 80 dramatic ensembles from the personal collection of the legendary tastemaker and style guru. 

Known for her eclectic permutations of designer clothing and exotic baubles, Apfel has inspired bold developments in her clothing and design industries through her spirited irreverence and pitch-perfect taste.

With a personal style The New York Times described as “controlled flamboyance,” Apfel has counted among her friends and clients the legends of international art, culture and fashion, including Ralph Ricci, Jason Wu and Issac Mizrahi.  

“Not only does Iris Apfel possess a finely-tuned sense of personal taste, but her ability to combine diverse fashions  — haute couture to flea markets finds, street style to tribal dress — is astonishing and endlessly inventive,” said Paula Richter, curator for exhibitions and research at the Peabody Essex Museum.  “Her use of fashion as an artistic medium is revealed in her sophisticated handling of color, line, pattern, texture and ornament.”

Now 88 years old, Apfel is still going strong.  She appeared in Vanity Fair’s 2008 international best-dressed list and is featured in a advertisement for luxury handbag designer Coach.  Some of elements of style according to Apfel include never taking yourself or an outfit too seriously and never fretting about your age.

“Coco Chanel once said that what makes a woman look old is trying desperately to look young, and it’s so silly,” Apfel said.  “Nobody’s going to believe you anyway; they get their faces done but their hands are still creepy.  There’s nothing wrong and I think it’s nice that you got to be so old.  It’s a blessing.”

“Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel” will be on view now through Feb. 7, 2010 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem.