Oscar Wilde said, “…either be a work of art or wear a work of art.” He could have been talking about Iris Apfel and Lisa Perry—each known for their innate sense of style and their constant interplay between fashion and interior design aesthetics. They are works of art in their own right, and their styles are truly their own. Although at different ends of the style spectrum—Apfel is a maximalist; Perry a minimalist—the women created their personal styles early in life and have timelessly and seamlessly carried them through to today.
Iris Apfel has always been unique. The famous octogenarian and geriatric starlet has been called a “rare bird,” which was also the title of her first museum show at The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005: Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel.
Born Iris Barrel in Astoria, Queens, during the depression era, Apfel was an only child who was doted on by her family. They were all creative in many ways. “Father had a natural sense of style and always looked marvelous in his clothes,” Apfel explains. He was in the import business, buying beautiful antiques in Germany in the early ’20s. Later, he went into the family glass-and-mirror business and was sought out by the top interior designers and architects of his day for his adeptness with unusual and difficult installations.
Apfel has fond memories of her Sundays spent at the Plaza Hotel with her father when he was working on an entire floor of suites for interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe who, Apfel reflects, preferred to be called Lady Mendl. Young Iris and Lady Mendl were drawn to each other. “I was intrigued by what she was doing in design and also her wonderful fur jackets that she had copied by Maximilian [Fur] in various colors,” Apfel remembers. “Even her dog Bleu Bleu appeared to have been dipped in indigo! I was also keenly aware of Lady Mendl always being surrounded by fabulous objects. I realized how much I had learned from her about real lifestyle and how closely related fashion and interior design are.”
Sadye Barrel, Apfel’s stylish and fashionable mother, was also a great influence. She was a lawyer and before her time in many ways. She opened a fashion boutique when her daughter was 12 or 13. “Mama,” as Apfel refers to her, “worshipped at the alter of the accessory. She taught me that jewelry is the most transformative thing you can have in your wardrobe. If you have a couple of good architectural outfits and put your money into accessories, you can create a million different looks. She was so advanced and sold fabulous costume jewelry in addition to clothing. I still change my whole look with just one piece of jewelry. They’re kind of like herbs and spices. They give zest and zing to an outfit.”
Apfel lives true to her words: Her accessories—the bracelets and eyewear—are iconic, and she feels undressed without them. “I always wear my bracelets, and of course, my eyeglasses, because I can’t see without them.” She does admit that she originally started to wear her signature oversized, round eyeglasses without any lenses because she just loved them. When Apfel and MET curator Harold Koda were picking which of her accessories to feature for the Rara Avis show, it became clear that they must be shown with her clothing. Her jewelry has always been part of her “assemblages,” as she calls them—her outfits that include bold fabrics and luxurious materials.
Her homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach have the same touch: bold, layered and reflective of Apfel’s unerring eye, her lifetime of travels, her constant curiosity of the world and her passion for living. She has always had an eye for unique furnishings and a passion for texture and color.
After studying art history at New York University and attending art school at the University of Wisconsin, Apfel worked at Women’s Wear Daily as a copy girl and later at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel in New York, writing their journal. People were drawn to her personal style and began coming to her to do their interiors. “I welcomed the opportunity because I had been assembling pieces together, so it came naturally. I guess people thought if I could decorate myself I could decorate a room or two! I don’t do run-of-the-mill stuff, and I don’t do minimal.”
During one home project she was unable to find a fabric and commissioned a master weaver to produce what she wanted, and soon, Old World Weavers was born in 1950. Co-founded by Apfel and Carl, her husband of 67 years, Old World Weavers became the leading manufacturer of traditional textiles of unparalleled craftsmanship and design. Their twice-yearly buying trips to Paris and throughout Europe became additional sources for inspiration. Eight presidential administrations—Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Reagan and Clinton—involved Apfel in their White House restoration projects. And while Old World Weavers was sold to Stark Fabrics in 1992, Apfel’s career is still in full force.
She is an icon who is constantly sought after to share her wisdom. From being a spokesperson and consultant for products that range from an eyeglass line for Eye Bobs, makeup for MAC, a costume jewelry collection for HSN and handbag and shoe collections to being the new face of jewelry line Alexis Bittar and in Kate Spade’s 2015 spring ad campaign, Apfel admits to never having a business plan and always trusting her her gut. Of course, that philosophy can also describe her look. “Style is quite impossible to define. Like charisma, you know it when you see it. Not too many people possess it. Unlike fashion, it cannot be bought. Imaginative, one of a kind, it differs from individual to individual. It’s an offshoot of personality, not a cover-all, and it’s concerned with real life, not just high fashion. Most importantly, it must be real—yours—not a slavish copy of someone else’s.”
For designer Lisa Perry, the interrelationship of art, craft and design began early on. A design impresario, her fashion sense and personal décor style are reflective of aesthetics honed from an early age. “My love of fashion, art and design came naturally,” she says. “I attribute my eye for style and color to my parents. My mother, Bacine Newberger, introduced me to iconic chic silhouettes. She loved fashion, wore Missoni, among other iconic designs. My father, Leonard, created drip paintings in the basement of our house in the Chicago area. Our home was filled with modernist classics from Saarinen and Eames to Marimekko.”
In addition, Perry was exposed to and later involved in the family’s successful textile business, Dana Mills. “My design aesthetic was always grounded in clean lines, geometric shapes, bold colors and minimalism.” She says even her childhood bedroom was yellow and orange with clean bold shapes.
When this youthful color and style maven decided to expand her studies of textiles, color theory, fashion and art, she moved to New York City and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her inspiration continues to come from vintage clothing, modern furnishings and always art. “I love wandering through museums, galleries and vintage stores.”
Perry’s vintage clothing collection is legendary and partially responsible for the launch of her own design business in 2006. She opened her showroom in 2007 after designing for friends and acquaintances who loved her personal fashion style.
“On a trip to Paris, I fell in love with the Courrèges store. It turned me on to that aesthetic. I loved the look of pop art and the ’60s and ’70s and started shopping that vintage.” She has always been drawn to the designs of Rudi Gernreich, Stephen Sprouse, YSL and Geoffrey Beene, clean lines and bold colors. “My personal style developed organically. Today, I have a women’s clothing line, accessories, children’s wear and home products. My flagship store at 988 Madison Avenue in Manhattan also houses our offices and design studio.” Lisa Perry Style also includes the Artist Collections line that has, to date, included Robert Indiana, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jeff Koons.
Perry has always been a visionary, bridging artists with fashion. “The inspiration comes from a piece of art. I was sparked by the photography show of Warhol, and I already owned an Andy Warhol paper dress. I knew I wanted to do it out of fabric so it would be lasting and not disposable.”
Each collaboration has come about in a unique way, and every collection starts with a fabric idea. “I create a print. It adds dimension. Then I add a geometric print into every collection. Something sparks my interest, my creativity, triggers my eye. People have always associated me with art,” explains Perry, who with her husband Richard Perry are well-known art collectors. “When I started my business, I used one fabric for two years. I fell in love with a wool jersey that was based off a vintage fabric, a forever fabric. There is always comfort in a knit dress, and I still use it today.” It is multi-seasonal and has become a Perry classic.
Their homes—a Manhattan penthouse on Sutton Place, a Hamptons retreat and a Palm Beach home on the ocean—have the same aesthetic lines. “I always begin working with a white box. Once I take everything away, then I can breathe. The color I add is always about sun, water and sky. I love yellow and the mirror colors of the water. I feel what is around me,” says Perry, who is a true colorist. “In Palm Beach, I wanted white with silver touches. The color palette is very pure [and] not washed out.” Her color sense is spot on, as evidenced in her iconic circle jersey dress with the ‘dot’ pockets.
Lisa Perry and Iris Apfel may be at opposite ends of the design spectrum in many ways, but they actually have a strong common ground. Their fashion style is uniquely their own. Their homes are reflective of their style: The Apfels live in what Iris calls a jigsaw puzzle of furnishings and accessories collected over a lifetime from travels, antiquing and her interior design and textile businesses. The Perry’s white boxes filled with pops of color and world-class art are serene and subscribe to Perry’s philosophy that less is more. Apfel may add one more accessory before feeling properly dressed. Perry may take one item away from her outfit, rarely wearing jewelry.
The women had the same response when asked about the essential ingredient in a wonderful home. Perry answered the question with one word—LOVE! And as Apfel so aptly said, “Love first and foremost. It is the essential ingredient in a home…someone that you love to be with; otherwise your home is just a house!” – by Barbara Dixon