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Legendary Fashion Icon Holds Court at Peabody Essex Museum
Iris Apfel ensembles. Photo: C J Walker Photography.

SALEM, MA.- Any woman who has ever worn a pair of jeans has Iris Apfel to thank.

In the 1940s, when only lumberjacks and field hands wore blue cotton denim, a persistent young girl hounded the owner of a Wisconsin Army & Navy store until he finally ordered her a pair of boy-sized denims.

Her intent: to wear them with a turban and large hoop earrings.

Such was an early milestone in the career of a fashion visionary and muse who quite possibly launched a trend in women’s fashion — jeans — that now represents a 10 billion dollar industry yearly in the U.S. alone.

And that was just the beginning. Inspired by the music of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and other jazz musicians, Iris Apfel was already synthesizing high and low, classical and ethnic elements in her manner of dress and aesthetic outlook. The result is a life and career of remarkable creativity and verve proving that it’s not only what you wear, but how you wear it.

Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel will be on view at the Peabody Essex Museum October 17, 2009 through February 7, 2010 featuring more than 80 dramatic ensembles from the personal collection of legendary tastemaker and style icon Iris Apfel. Known for her eclectic permutations of designer clothing and exotic baubles, Apfel has inspired bold developments in the clothing and design industries through her spirited irreverence and pitch-perfect taste.

Now in her 88th year, she continues to challenge visual culture with radical juxtapositions of far-flung influences. These spectacular and unexpected wardrobe combinations are exhibited with inventive staging and playful displays that underscore Apfel’s inexhaustible creative spirit.

“Not only does Iris Apfel possess a finely-tuned sense of personal taste, but her ability to combine diverse fashions — from haute couture to flea market finds, street style to tribal dress — is astonishing and endlessly inventive. Her use of fashion as an artistic medium is revealed in her sophisticated handling of color, line, pattern, texture, and ornament,” said Paula Richter, Curator for Exhibitions and Research at the Peabody Essex Museum.

With a personal style the New York Times described as “controlled flamboyance,” this fashion maven, New York society figure, and co-founder of the legendary textile design company, Old World Weavers, has counted among her friends and clients the legends of international art, culture, and fashion. For decades she has traveled the world, building her business and inspiring fashion designers such as Ralph Rucci, Jason Wu and Isaac Mizrahi (slated to join Ms. Apfel in conversation at PEM -- see Exhibition Events below). All the while she has scoured souks and boutiques worldwide as a connoisseur of all things wearable and wonderful. She recently appeared at the top of Vanity Fair’s international best-dressed list and is featured in print advertising for Coach. On the street, Iris Apfel is easily recognizable for her out-sized spectacles and head-turning accessories.

Iris Apfel is part interior designer and part performance artist. She can deftly change a room by appointing a space with objects and textiles, as well as by simply appearing in an outfit with its own stylistic center of gravity. Anyone who has ever given an especially elegant drapery pull a long look when accessorizing an evening dress would find a kindred spirit in Iris Apfel.

While few are as fearless as Apfel in assembling daily attire, all can find inspiration to take risks and regard apparel and the wide world of accessories as a means of creative self-expression and a source of joy. Couture and flea market finds, haute and — not — all have their place in the imagination and closets of the divine Iris Apfel.

Elements of Style According to Iris Apfel:
1. Never take yourself or an outfit too seriously.
2. Visit the animal kingdom.
3. Consider the clergy.
4. Travel widely.
5. Go high and low.
6. Don’t fret about your age.
7. Don’t be afraid to stop traffic.

Peabody Essex Museum | Rare Bird of Fashion | Iris Apfel |

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