Crash Course

Crash Course

Five days in New York with UT visiting professor Iris Apfel and the students she calls her “little chickens.”

Not every classroom is created equal. Most are characterized by a chalkboard, a projector, and yawning students browsing the internet on their laptops. But sometimes, the classroom is a kaleidoscopic storefront in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. And sometimes the curriculum for the class is created by the world-famous interior designer, fashion icon, and businesswoman Iris Apfel and includes hourlong presentations by J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons and Tommy Hilfiger himself. It’s rare, and almost unbelievable, like when the Metropolitan Museum of Art opens its doors early to the visiting professor and her “little chickens” for a guided tour of the Costume Institute, but once a year, it happens.

For 13 mesmerized UT textiles and apparel students, furiously scribbling handwritten notes and absorbing all they can from industry leaders about design, licensing, merchandising, social media, and more, this is an actual class. It’s called UT in NYC, and for the students, it’s a life-changing experience. Apfel uses her expertise and the relationships she’s fostered in the fashion industry to book office visits with more than 20 top industry professionals—their classrooms for each day. Like in any normal class, the students are graded and receive credit. But that’s where its resemblance to a typical class ends.

Today, at a store called Story, a passerby catches a glimpse of Apfel and screeches to a halt outside the floor-to-ceiling window. She’s unmistakable in her globe-sized, thick-rimmed glasses, her neck wrapped in a thick, black plastic chain necklace, and both arms covered from wrist to elbow in stacked chunky tri-colored bangles, one that reads: “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

The man’s head jerks around, and when it dawns on him who he is looking at, a 94-year-old style Svengali delicately devouring a mini chocolate-iced cupcake, his lower jaw nearly kisses the sidewalk on 10th Avenue.

“It’s much easier not to be an individual,” Apfel will later tell me, of this idiosyncratic bold look and attitude for which she has become internationally known. “You run the risk of scorn, if you care about it. I don’t give a damn.”

This type of double-take happens every time Apfel emerges from her driver Cecil’s white BMW 523i, or walks past the threshold of a building in the Garment District, or puts her cane to the sidewalk of any street on the island of Manhattan. This is her domain, as it has been since before any of her students’ grandparents were born, and, considering the indelible mark she has left on the fashion world, it will remain so long after she is gone. And these students, working under the umbrella of UT’s School of Human Ecology, are along for the ride.

“It’s unreal,” says senior textile apparel and design major Clare Moore. Carlee Barrow, who missed graduation for this trip, chimes in: “It’s inspirational. It’s intimidating.”

Barrow considered attending graduation instead of the UT in NYC trip, until her roommate, who was selected last year, set her straight, telling her, “You’re crazy if you don’t go.” Today, in the cafe of the Met, Barrow shudders at the thought of missing out. “This is once-in-a-lifetime,” she says.

The day before, Hilfiger gave his company’s presentation himself, an honor he doesn’t afford most. Still, Moore says that Apfel spoke to the billionaire the same way she’d speak to Cecil, or to the students themselves. “She asked him, ‘Why is there a missed market for clothing for older women that’s marketable?’ He kind of didn’t have an answer. It’s scary, but that boldness inspires you.”

The students are quick to point out that Apfel wasn’t merely taking Hilfiger to task, but speaking for those who are marginalized in the world of fashion, and had been doing so the entire trip, like at Dover Street Market, when she mentioned that the Gucci pieces they were presenting wouldn’t fit most ordinary people.

“It’s in an interested way,” Barrow says. “Iris knows everything but she’s still so curious and she wants to learn.”

“[They] respect her so much and they are trying to impress her,” says senior Caitlin Topham. “And yet she’s so grateful and thankful. She gives gratitude even though she’s made it so far and she’s so respected. It’s a good thing to learn.”

Apfel has lived multiple lives in her almost-century on Earth. Born Iris Barrel in Queens to a Russian-immigrant mother and American father in 1921, Apfel studied art history at NYU and art at the University of Wisconsin, graduating from the latter in 1943. In 1948, she married Carl Apfel, and in the 1950s, they started a textiles company called Old World Weavers.

For the next 40 years, they traveled the world together, working on projects for prestigious institutions such as the Met, the State Department, and nine presidential administrations, from Truman to Clinton. They sold the company in 1992 to Stark Carpet and allegedly retired, though both continued to work. Carl died in August 2015, just a few days shy of his 101st birthday and after more than 67 years of marriage to Iris.

There are a couple of events that transformed her into the style icon she is today. When she was 19, Apfel says, a traumatic event (though she doesn’t say what) shocked her world, and made her realize she didn’t want to live in anybody else’s image.

“From then on, I said screw it. I’m not a rebel and I’m not trying to change the world, but I’m not going to do something just because everybody does it if I don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” she says.

The other was the 2005 opening of Rara Avis, a Met Costume Gallery exhibition of Apfel’s personal wardrobe that drew visitors like Carla Fendi, Giorgio Armani, and Karl Lagerfeld, and propelled the then-84-year-old into the zeitgeist.

Four years later, at an afterparty for the opening of the Rare Bird of Fashion exhibit honoring Apfel in Boston, a member of the advisory council for the UT School of Human Ecology named Sue Meller met the bespectacled wonder and connected her with program director Nancy Prideaux. In December 2010, Prideaux and Apfel had dinner in New York. Prideaux left that night with the underpinnings of what would become this course. Now in its sixth year, the UT in NYC program, through its association with Apfel, has given major credibility to the textiles and apparel program, which is especially important considering its location thousands of miles from New York City. Students who have been accepted into UT in NYC, like Alfie Estrada, BS ’16, now working at a furrier called Pologeorgis, are getting jobs in the fashion industry that may have gone to Parsons or Fashion Institute of Technology graduates in the past.

IMG_6890Case in point: Many of the office visits in which they partake are a hybrid learning experience and recruiting tool. At INC, an in-house private label for Macy’s, half a dozen employees extol the virtues of working for that specific brand. As we exit Happy Socks, CEO Isaac Ash exclaims “We’re hiring!” before handing out a stack of business cards. When these 13 students pass through the halls now, regardless of who they are, they are instantly appealing.

In the foyer of Naeem Khan’s West 36th Street office, the Indian-American designer who has dressed everyone from Beyoncé to Michelle Obama, Apfel sits like a sartorial Buddha, her palms pressed together under her chin as Khan imparts wisdom—absorbing all, knowing all. He stresses the importance of making personal relationships in the business, specifically if you’re fortunate enough to know one Iris Apfel.

“Iris is family,” Khan says. “[Iris and Carl] are a great example of how one should live their life.”

Occasionally, she interjects with sage advice of her own. After calling her dear friend Khan “the king of the runway,” she pleads with the students not to expect instant success in whichever path they choose in fashion.

“If you could read about it,” she says of apprenticeship, “it wouldn’t mean anything.”

To these students, Apfel displays affection and gratitude for their participation in a program that, to be honest, I figured was simply an afterthought for Apfel—a feather in her cap—before experienced it myself.

“I love the kids,” Apfel says, back in her chariot. “I have an interesting program like this one, which I wouldn’t want to give up.” The notion that UT would want to or could possibly replace its singularly fantastic visiting professor borders on absurd, but that’s Apfel. Her ethos, to treat everyone respectfully and to live without ego, trickles down to the crop of giddy millennials she met four days prior.

Two days later at the Carlyle Hotel, in front of a swath of ornate, midnight blue and gold wallpaper, Apfel sips from a cup of chamomile tea. I have to know what keeps her going, because beyond her dozens of phone calls per day, the ready-to-wear clothing line she’s designing for HSN and the high-end jewelry line for Mexican silversmith Tane, the photo shoots, and the interviews with magazines around the world, she still has the time and energy for 10-hour days with her students.

Apfel moves like a shark through the exhausting, clogged maze of Manhattan, continuously shuttling in and out of cars, and up and down elevators and through corridors, when she could be doing literally anything else. At 94, why doesn’t she want to give it all up and sip Johnny Walker Black (her preferred spirit) in Palm Beach, where she keeps an apartment?

“I love to work and I love people and I love being busy. I’m not a lady who lunches and I don’t play golf or cards,” Apfel says, straightening the black feather boa draped over her neck. “To me, that’s a fate worse than death.”

Photos (from top): Jon Pack; UT in NYC students pose with Apfel and Hilfiger.


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