This week everybody's talking about the new Iris Apfel doco, and Instagram is full of pictures of her excellent face. "I'm certainly not pretty," she told me when I got her on the phone. Pretty? Whatevs. That face of hers is strong, fascinating, characterful, testament to a long life lived well. It is an extraordinary face, not least because it's nearly 94 years old (it's her birthday next week), and hasn't been sliced open and yanked up higher than nature intended by some surgeon. Or pumped full of fillers and wrinkle-freezer. That didn't stop Apfel landing a cosmetics deal though; her 2011 range for M.A.C was a sell-out.
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Ever since Apfel's fabulous wardrobe was the subject of an exhibition at the Met, she has been courted and referenced by industry influencers. "I never expected anything like this," she said, "[but] I can't say I am unhappy about it."
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She works hard on her look. "Everything that's worth having is an effort. I think in a former life I was a hunter gatherer, I love going out not knowing what I am going to find, I love digging and poking... putting things together." What she doesn't love is lazy dressing. "Masses of people all in a semi-uniform. It hurts my eyes." Yes, you in your boring old jeans and T-shirts, you are missing out. "It's a great creative opportunity to play around with dressing. It's like playing a game," she said.
It many ways Apfel's popularity makes perfect sense, because she is incredible, obviously, but also given fashion's current fascination with glamorous grannies. Ari Seth Cohen's Advanced Style led the way. When Karen Walker collaborated with Cohen to cast Joyce Carpati, Linda Rodin, Lynn Dell and Ilona Royce Smithkin in her 2013 eyewear campaign, it was official - 80 was the new 20. (Actually, Smithkin was 92 at the time.)
Céline backed that up by Joan Didion (81) to be the face of the brand for spring '15. That same season, Lanvin tapped one of Yves Saint Laurent's favourite models of the 1970s, Pat Cleveland (66). This year alone I have interviewed Jenny Kee (68) for the cover of Sunday Style, and Daphne Selfe (86), "the world's oldest supermodel" as the face of OPSM eyewear. Carmen Dell'Orefice is still working at 84. And did you see 77-year-old Jane Fonda on the July cover of W magazine? She's beyond. So, look, it's out there, this appreciation for women well past middle age.
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But from another perspective the celebration of Apfel's image is surprising. We are living in an era of unprecedented possibility for visually turning back time. Anti-ageing procedures are now the norm. I'm often the only person in the room who's never had Botox. I don't know the names of all the other thingamajigs my friends pump into their fine lines, but I do know you can have your turkey neck melted in an excruciatingly painful process that fixes the Nora Ephron problem (never say never). In this climate, featuring Apfel in a fashion magazine starts to look like a revolution. Maybe it's because the new generation of smooth-faced, forever 36-ers actually yearn for a bit of wrinkly realism? Or not.
For as long as I can remember I've been fascinated by glamorous older women. My grandmother was a cross between Joan Rivers and Joan Crawford. My style icons are Diana Vreeland and Mona von Bismarck. I prefer an interesting face to a Bambi-cute one. And I believe a wise old face is beautiful, in a different way to youth's dewy gorgeousness of course, but beautiful none the less.
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When I left Vogue in 2009, I was working on a project called Style Wisdom, which involved interviewing fabulous old ladies about the chic life. I toted it all around town with my then literary agent, and the promise of portraiture by Hugh Stewart. But Australian publishers couldn't get their heads around it (this was pre-Advanced Style mania). They kept telling me, "People aren't interested in older women." We were, you see, in the middle of a youth quake. The average runway model was about 15. I gave up on the book, but not on the ladies. Nothing beats a wise old dame killing it on the red carpet, putting the kids around her to shame.
When I grow up I want to be like Apfel or Selfe or Vreeland. Or maybe Barbara Cartland. I know my bones will ache and I will feel bad about my neck, and half my friends will be dead - but I don't care. I will make new friends (18-year-olds; I'll loan them my jewellery); I will be demanding and fabulous and irascible and probably drunk before lunch. No news there then.
Apfel tried to tell me she found the whole It-girl thing exhausting. "Since I broke my hip I get very tired, my ankles swell, so I am lying here in an ugly white bathrobe," she said. "I need more rest! I yearn for it, I lust for it, like a normal woman would lust for shekels and pearls." Then she thought a moment and turned it around: "But you know, I take rests in between and I keep going. I guess what I do energizes me."
And that, my friends is the power of style - still going strong at 94.
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