96-year-old Iris Apfel has almost a million followers on Instagram; she’s a businesswoman, interior designer, and a fashion icon. But when I sat down with her during [Pre]Coterie Women’s June Market Week in New York, I learned some things I didn’t already know about her—21 glorious, unconventional, inspiring, and admirable things.
This is the second time Apfel has sold her expansive collection of personal accessories at the Vintage@Coterie Pop-Up, and when I arrived on-site, it seemed like everybody else in the building was clearing out. But Iris? She was shopping. I was politely asked to wait on the sidelines until the job was done, and I must say—if anyone knows how to shop, it’s this woman.
A team of assistants buzzed around Apfel, attending to phone calls, reporters, and shoppers. Designers and sellers alike hovered over her shoulder as she examined vintage shoes, gowns, and accessories. And in the middle of it all, Apfel took her sweet time. She was like the eye of a storm—the calm in the middle of all the commotion. And I could sense that she had the knowledge and appreciation of a seasoned professional.
Apfel is clearly regal and extremely wise. But I wanted her to let loose a little—to show me some of that notorious sense of humor, and a closer look at the woman behind the glasses. So, although she warned me that she wouldn’t stand for “dopey questions,” she was more than willing to answer my 21 random, silly, and offbeat interview questions. And guess what? I think it worked.
1. What’s your middle name?
I don’t know that I ever had a middle name—as I grew up, I kept changing between middle names that I thought were glamorous. I didn’t like any of them, so I don’t have one now. Now, my maiden name, Barrel, is more or less my middle name, and I haven’t got room for another one.
2. Which POTUS did you enjoy working with the most? (Editor’s note: Apfel has designed White House interiors for nine different U.S. presidents.)
I didn’t work with any presidents. You don’t work with presidents—you work with the Fine Arts Commission. But I love the White House. I loved it all.
3. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
I think accessories are transformative.
4. Which self-designed emoji is your favorite? (Editor’s note: Apfel and Macy’s collaborated on an entire line of emojis, featuring the icon herself.)
Oh, I don’t know. I like them all.
5. What’s your favorite item that you bought today?
Well, I didn’t get to do any shopping before, so I’m buying like a lunatic. I bought a beautiful paisley cape. It’s really antique—1898. It’s long; it’s an evening cape. It’s beautiful.
6. Do you have an event in mind that you’ll wear it to?
Something will turn up.
These days, people look like walking rag heaps.
7. What’s your favorite type of weather?
I like when it’s clear and cool. Not cold but cool.
8. Sunglasses or eyeglasses?
9. What’s the last thing you ate?
Half a zucchini sandwich and a chocolate chip cookie. But we have no more to offer you—they’re gone.
10. Who was your hero as a child?
I never had one.
11. Your favorite accessory that you currently own?
I am passionate about all my accessories. I think accessories are transformative, and I love them dearly, so I can’t give you one. It wouldn’t be fair.
12. What’s your biggest pet peeve?
The way people look these days. They look like walking rag heaps.
13. What are you most proud of?
I guess I’m proud of the fact that I lasted this long.
14. What’s your preferred mode of transportation?
I love to walk, but because of the manners of the people today, I no longer walk on the streets alone. Twice, I’ve been knocked down and ended up in the hospital. Now, everybody who wants me sends a car, so that’s very nice.
15. What’s your drink of choice?
It depends on my mood.
16. What’s your mantra right now?
I don’t have a mantra.“
I’m proud of the fact that I lasted this long.
17. How do you take your tea?
18. Do you have a hidden talent?
That’s for other people to say.
19. Silver or gold?
20. If you could come back as one person, living or dead, who would it be?
I’ve lasted this long, I don’t even want to think about coming back.
21. If there was one thing you want young women to take away from your book, what would it be?
I just want them to have a good time. Be individual, be themselves. Auntie Mame always said that life is such a banquet, and it’s a shame that so many poor bastards are starving to death.
Editor’s note: At the end of this interview, Apfel gave me her home address and asked me to send her a hard copy of the final product. Her final words to me: “Print it big.”
Buy Iris Apfel’s most recent book, eponymously titled Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon, wherever books are sold or online.