Rare Bird of Fashion—and Academia

At age 90, New York style icon Iris Apfel is UT’s most unusual professor.

Her eighties brought Iris Apfel more and more trappings of fame: Her own show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her own line on the Home Shopping Network. A book about her clothes. A spread for Italian Vogue. One advertising campaign for Coach, and another as the face of MAC Cosmetics.

But her most unexpected foray, Apfel says, has been into academia. Now 90, Apfel is a visiting professor at The University of Texas.

“I loved school,” she gushes. “Of all the things in the whole world, that was the last thing I could have imagined. I’m an absent-minded professor!”

Apfel is a creature of New York City. Her Park Avenue home—featured in Architectural Digest—is stuffed with European antiques. Before she became famous for fashion, after all, she traveled the world as an interior designer. She and her husband of 63 years, Carl, founded Old World Weavers, which produces replicas of historical textiles so exact they’ve been sought for the White House nine times.

But amid the graceful lamps, regal sofas, and even a Velazquez painting in Chateau Apfel is a bright stuffed parrot by the phone. And around its neck is a burnt-orange Longhorn ribbon. It came tied around her first box of UT business cards, which Apfel began immediately and gleefully to hand out around New York.

Apfel may not have known much about UT and its branding when she began, but the shrewd businesswoman knows merchandising potential when she sees it.

“I love that ribbon,” she says. “It’s stunning. Do they sell that? It’s great.”

The story of how Iris Apfel, known for her multicultural, couture-infused, over-the-top outfits, became involved with UT couldn’t be more unlikely.

When the exhibition of her clothing and accessories, “Rare Bird of Fashion,” had moved from the Met to the Peabody Essex Museum in Boston in 2009, an Austinite named Sue Meller, BA ’75, Life Member, happened to see it.

Meller, longtime general manager of the prestigious Headliners Club and a member of the School of Human Ecology’s advisory council, was struck; Apfel’s otherworldly fashion ensembles were nonpareil. “Wouldn’t this be wonderful for our students?” she asked a docent.

A few weeks later, Meller got a call—and nearly fell over. Apfel had heard of her interest and wanted to learn about UT.

Various New York schools of fashion and design had tried to involve Apfel over the years, but they seemed most interested in fundraising. With UT, she felt a click. “Other schools don’t seem to be as interested in their students,” she says. “You guys just knock yourselves out for them.”

Now Apfel does likewise. With the help of full-time professor Nancy Prideaux, she leads the UT in NYC dream course, which brought 14 Textiles and Apparel undergrads to New York in May.

While earning class credit, the group took advantage of Apfel’s matchless little black book, which includes everyone from Martha Stewart to Oscar de la Renta. She got UT students through doors even fashion-industry executives couldn’t swing.

Apfel knows the connections the students make through the program could change their careers. She’s working on a new itinerary of visits for this year’s UT in NYC. “Everyone in the fashion business was just dumbstruck that I got such a cast of characters together,” she says. “It wasn’t easy, believe me.”

The students impressed the executives. Prideaux ordered them to research ceaselessly, and it paid off; several speakers remarked on how well prepared they were.

One stylish student, Harrison Koiwai, who changed his hair color daily, particularly impressed Apfel, and she’s working to get him in at luxury furrier Pologeorgis. Not everyone can be a designer, so she tells students how vast the industry’s possibilities are.

But she’s not one to wax on about how students keep her young. Apfel, who came of age during WWII, is more likely to decry Gen Y’s sense of entitlement.

Students, she says, must be willing to start at the bottom. The $250 billion fashion industry holds huge opportunities for those who can work—and wait for their moment.

And there is no more shining example of this than Iris Apfel. She calls herself a “geriatric starlet,” more famous now than in youth or even middle age. It started with the Met show and snowballed from there. “The whole thing is so ridiculous because I’m not doing anything differently than I have for the last 70 years,” she says. “My overnight took seven decades. Sometimes it’s just the right time for things.”

Photo courtesy Iris Apfel


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