There are many wise things Iris Apfel has said over the years, but her quote—"I never buy what someone says is 'in' or a 'must-have'; I buy what makes me happy"—has always resonated with me, despite my career status as a fashion editor. While I'm always writing about what's new, I always try to avoid those two terms—what is one woman's must-have is another woman's fashion nightmare, and I believe all should have the freedom to choose what feels essential to their wardrobes at any given moment.
While I share some of the same sentiments on style as the nonagenarian starlet, our personal outfitting techniques are quite different. I don't wear an excess of jewellery. In fact, I don't wear an excess of anything since I turned 30. My wardrobe used to be an entirely more avant-garde place when I was a fashion design student—thrift shopping and charity stores were my daily rummaging hot spots, I made tiered gypsy skirts out of whatever fabric I could salvage from my university creations, and I was never shy of wearing something bonkers to a party. I still have leftover gluts of leopard-print jumpsuits, 1980s knitwear and clip-on earrings because of my former fashion attitude.
These days, my attire has streamlined somewhat: I'm still partial to a bold print, a frill here and there, and some jumbo earrings, but on a regular basis, I'm a navy culottes–and–white blouse kind of woman. So I set myself a challenge in the spirit of a Pinterest board we're curating right now on fashion's risk-takers. I wanted to see how dressing like the one and only Apfel would feel for a week. Could I stick to it? And what if my own, relatively pared-back wardrobe held enough stock to create her look? Keep reading to find out how the style test went down.
The first thing I know I need to nail is Iris's signature eyewear, and fortunately, the kind team at Linda Farrow lent me the essential round frames this experiment would be nothing without. Next, it's about spending hours trawling through my own closet for Iris-appropriate goods. I wreck my house in the process, unearthing old boxes of vintage clothes in the attack, unpacking high-summer pieces I'd never usually wear in autumn and parade each look to get my husband's opinion. He knows who she is, so we implemented an Apfel-ness scale: 1 is very Iris, and 10 is not so much. At home, I feel damn pleased with myself—just look at how all those red items I own match up together. A true Iris styling trick, that is. I give myself 3 for effort.
But into the streets, I can't help but feel the eclecticism of the vibrant colours, boho jacket, round specs and tonne of jewellery start to the turn the heads of bemused builders and bus drivers. Perhaps I'm being too self-conscious; I try to combat the feeling by reminding myself that Iris wouldn't approve of such anxiety. Some lovely older ladies walking by look on in fascination/appreciation, but my first lunch break outside of the office feels punctuated with blatant stares. Can I take the attention? I'm still not sure.
So I realised that dressing up on a daily basis, while time-consuming, is heaps of fun—you just need to add an extra 10 minutes to your schedule each morning and evening for accessory application and removal. This kind of frivolity is not something I've allowed myself the space to do, thanks to a super-busy decade of working, working and more working, but I was soon back into the groove of pairing bizarre combinations together.
I learn a couple of vital lessons for re-creating Apfel's style: Texture is all-important (don't expect an outfit to have anything less than about five different touchy-feely elements), control can be found in a concise colour palette and it's all about wearing trousers. There's something about pants that make any OTT look feel easier to pull off. Dresses and skirts are inherently dressy, so it's no real surprise that Apfel is most commonly pictured in slacks—did you know she loves jeans? Oh, and as she says: "It's better to be happy than well dressed." So I just follow my mood and emotional connection to an outfit rather than standard rules or my mirror.
There are pitfalls that come with putting on yet another item before leaving the house, particularly if you're a writer: Bangles and keyboards are not pals. In fact, bangles are prohibitive when it comes to doing almost anything modern, aside from dramatically hailing a taxi. Taking a jacket off: Difficult. Walking down the street: You can hear me jangling from a mile away. Eating lunch: It's tricky when you need a degree of wrist action to cut through a particularly tough piece of sourdough. I'm wishing I could shake all the jewellery off—it's that suffocating. Give me a simple pair of gold hoops any day.
There's something liberating about impersonating someone else's sartorial character as a routine. I start to be able to leave my inhibitions at the door and go forth into the world with Iris's renowned confidence.
Over the years I've been photographed for my work countless times, but it's this shoot that feels the easiest. Perhaps it's reignited the am dram persona that lay dormant since I was 14, or maybe it's the NFG vibe of Iris that enables me to throw on complex outfits and not even notice that anyone's looking anymore.
I'm sure I'm nowhere near as ingenious with my outfit choices as Iris, and goodness knows if she'd approve of these concoctions I'm cooking up in homage, but even adding a pipette-full of her spirit to my closet has felt entirely positive.
"My mother knew if you bought a couple of really good architectural outfits and put your money into accessories, you could create a million different looks. She taught that to me, which I think was invaluable," says Iris.
So it turns out that I a) probably don't have enough "good" architectural outfits in my repertoire, and b) I've not spent enough money on accessories. A few days in, I've run out of clothes and accoutrements. I'm having to repeat outfits, but I imagine Iris must be the same on a grander scale, of course. It's not like I'm wearing the same Breton top and jeans every day, and would anyone even remember whether I wore the grey shaggy jacket this week or not?
The girls in Who What Wear UK's team are so used to my new fashion persona that they're convinced this will be my look in the more mature years to come. Perhaps. But the one thing I've learnt is that, like any skill, practice makes perfect. I think being as outrageous as Iris is possible for all of us if you want it to be so. It just takes time, a little bravery, and a large amount of storage.