Born Iris Barrel in Astoria, Queens, New York, Apfel is the only child of Samuel Barrel, whose family owned a glass-and-mirror business, and his Russian-born wife, Sadye, who owned a fashion boutique. Both were Jewish.
As a young woman, Apfel worked for Women’s Wear Daily and for interior designer Elinor Johnson. She also was an assistant to illustrator Robert Goodman.
On Feb 22, 1948, she married Carl Apfel (born Aug 4, 1914 – died Aug 1, 2015). Two years later, they launched the textile firm Old World Weavers and ran it until they retired in 1992. From 1950 to 1992, Iris Apfel took part in several design restoration projects, including work at the White House for nine presidents: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton.
Through their business, the couple began traveling all over the world where she began buying pieces of non-Western, artisanal clothes. She wore these clothes to clients’ high-society parties.
In 2016, she performed in a television commercial for the French car DS 3 and was the face of Australian brand Blue Illusion. In March 2016, Apfel announced a collaboration with technology startup WiseWear on an upcoming line of Smart Jewelry.
On September 13, 2005, The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York premiered an exhibition about Iris Apfel’s style entitled Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel. The success of the exhibition, curated by Stéphane Houy-Towner, prompted an initial traveling version of the exhibit at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, New York, and later at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
Advisory and academic roles
Apfel consults and lectures about style and other fashion topics. In 2013, she was listed as one of the fifty “Best-Dressed over 50” by The Guardian.
Apfel is the star of a documentary by Albert Maysles, called Iris. It premiered at the New York Film Festival in October 2014, and was subsequently acquired by Magnolia Pictures for US theatrical distribution in 2015.
Apfel was also featured in the documentary If You’re Not In the Obit, Eat Breakfast, a television film which premiered in 2017.
Iris Apfel was awarded the Women Together Special Award of the Year at the 12th Annual Women Together Gala at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, June 7, 2016. Joana Caparrós Masip is president and founder of Women Together. Iris Apfel was accompanied by other awardees, such as Hollywood actress Rosario Dawson, the Punta CanaFoundation, Loewe Foundation and others. Iris Apfel was handed the award by Malu Edwards Hurley, who is a board of directors of Women Together and who was MC of the gala event, together with Carlos Jimenez, representative of Spain at the United Nations Headquarters in Brussels.