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UW Community Mourns Iris Apfel

Iris Barrel Apfel ‘43 died March 1, 2024, age 102.

Iris Apfel attends The Fashion Group International’s Night of Stars Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Iris Barrel Apfel ’43 dazzled the world with her unapologetic individuality and daring fashion sense. With a candid character, and her signature oversized glasses, Apfel built a successful career in design and textiles that spanned more than 40 years. A self-proclaimed “geriatric starlet,” she was the subject of the 2014 documentary Iris. She died March 1, 2024, but she will be long remembered for her enthusiastic creativity, steadfast spirit, and irreverent outlook on life.

The only child of Samuel Barrel and Sadye Asofsky, Apfel was born on August 29, 1921, in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York. Her father ran a glass and mirror business, and her mother owned a fashion boutique. As a child, Apfel took weekly subway trips to Manhattan to explore secondhand shops and the junk emporia of Greenwich Village, where she began discovering her bold sense of style by the age of 12. 

Inspired by her family’s flairs, Apfel studied art history at New York University and attended art school at UW–Madison from 1940 to 1943. She worked as a copyeditor for Women’s Wear Daily and served as an apprentice with interior designer Elinor Johnson. She married Carl Apfel in 1948, and two years later, they launched Old World Weavers, a New York textile firm, which they ran together until retiring in 1992. Through their business, the couple traveled the world, embracing an array of cultures through international bazaars and flea markets and returning with elevated inspiration. They were married for 67 years before Carl’s death in 2015.

During her extensive career, Apfel redecorated the White House for nine presidents, including Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter, and she served as a visiting professor for fashion students at the University of Texas. Her style may have been deemed garish by some, but Apfel always knew exactly what she was doing. “If you have to be all things to all people, you end up being nothing to nobody,” she told the New York Times in 2011. “When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everybody else.” 

In her retirement, Apfel received great acclaim for a 2005 show at the Costume Institute in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring her collection of styled clothes and costume jewelry. In 2018, she published her biography Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon. And in 2019, at the age of 97, she signed a modeling contract and was frequently sought out by designers like Tommy Hilfiger.

A woman like no other, Apfel passed away at her home in Palm Beach, Florida, at the age of 102, leaving behind an eclectic legacy that won’t soon be forgotten. “Having a sense of wonder, a sense of humor, and a sense of curiosity — these are my tonic,” Apfel wrote in her book. “They keep you young, childlike, open to new people and things, ready for another adventure. I hold the self-proclaimed record for being the World’s Oldest Living Teenager, and I intend to keep it that way.”

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