Iris Apfel: “Why you have to find yourself before you find your style”

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Billie Bhatia
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As she turns 97 this month, the interior designer, businesswoman, fashion icon and world’s most renowned glasses-wearer shares her guide to personal style.

“The problem with today is that everybody wants to look like everyone else when they’d look better if they just looked like themselves. For example, big glasses look great on me, but some people look like cartoons with them on. If we get down to it, you have to find yourself before you find your style.

As a child I was always fascinated by spectacle frames, and every time I saw an unusual pair in a yard sale or a flea market, I had to have them. I stored my collection in a cigar box and, every once in a while, I would take them out and play with them, like dress up. When I got to be a late teenager I would try them on and say, ‘wow, what a wonderful fashion accessory’. And when I got even older and went out for an evening with friends, I would get a kick out of wearing them because everybody always admired them. I didn’t actually need glasses, I just loved how they made me feel.

In those days - that was a very long time ago - no one wore large glasses, the fashion was small, delicate frames. I would get so many questions and quizzical looks, people didn’t understand why I would want to wear something so indiscreet. Strangers would ask me, ‘why do you wear them so large?’ which I found very annoying. I would respond, ‘the bigger to see you with’ and that shut them up! 

My adoration for large glasses continued well into adulthood and every time I found a large pair of glasses - which wasn’t very often - I would buy them to add to my collection. It came to pass over the years that people began to say these glasses were my trademark. I didn’t need or want a trademark, but people branded me with one anyway.

When I did eventually need glasses in my Fifties, I went to my cigar box, dug out the biggest ones I could find, brought them to the shop to be fitted and that was that. All of the glasses I own are versions of the same style, I change them sometimes but never far from what I originally fell in love with. I could never wear contact lenses, the idea to me is appalling, I could never do it. My only annoyance with these glasses was that I had to stop wearing my huge earrings - earrings of any kind with big glasses are just too much. However, this is not the greatest hardship I have had to endure.

Glasses aren’t a mundane accessory with a purely functional facility. They are really quite important, so why not make them fashionable? Glasses are something that you have to wear all the time, you can’t change them like a dress or a blouse, so you must find something that suits you and that you feel comfortable in. Look at it as if you’re trying on a hat; you have to experiment and try a huge variety on to find the style that suits you. I experiment with everything, you can’t be right all the time, especially when it comes to style. That’s the fun of fashion though, isn’t it? 

It all comes down to style. Real style is not readily found. Real style in my view is attitude, attitude, attitude. An editor once told me, ‘fashion you can buy, but style you must possess’, and the older I get the more I see that style is in your DNA. You can’t just say ‘I want to have style and I like so-and-so; that’s what I’ll do.’ Then that style is not intrinsically your own, it is borrowed from someone else.

You can learn to be fashionable and chic, but that is something entirely different to style. Style is something innate that comes from within. I never really recognised my own style, I just wore what I liked and followed my gut. If you seek your style too consciously it won’t feel like a natural extension of yourself.

To truly find great style, however, is to know who you are - this is the key. If you don’t know who you are, you will look like 17 different people cobbled into one person with no definition. People want to have style but don’t want to work for it and they don’t want to find out who they are, maybe they are scared of something unknown? These days young people seem to all look like alike, which is not very inspiring or interesting. I am great believer in being you. You don’t need to live in a fashion image, that’s ridiculous. Being yourself is so much more invigorating.

My personality, I hope, doesn’t depend on a pair of spectacle frames. That would be a shallow, indeed. But I am glad I found them.”

Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon (£25, Harper Design) is out now. 

Images: courtesy of Iris Apfel / Getty