“Accidental Icon” and “geriatric starlet” Iris Apfel just became the oldest living person to be celebrated with a limited-edition, one of a kind Barbie in her likeness. The Mattel doll celebrates not just Apfel’s inspiring late-life turn as a style muse to many, from millennial Instagrammers to curators at The Met, but also her legacy in interior design as a female entrepreneur and the founder of Old World Weavers in the 1960s.
Just ahead of the launch of her new book, Accidental Icon: Musings of a Geriatric Starlet, Apfel was made into a one-of-a-kind “Shero” Barbie in a matching outfit to the one she wears on the cover of the coffee table tome.
As CNN reports, Mattel marked International Women’s Day earlier this month by unveiling new additions to its “Shero” collection, a collection of one-off Barbies based on “modern-day role models” like American snowboarder Chloe Kim and British boxer Nicola Adams (and now Iris Apfel), as well as its “Inspiring Women” line, with dolls based on pioneering historical figures such as aviator Amelia Earhart, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
Why do we care so much about Iris Apfel, who is either “tacky” or “trendsetting” depending on which reader comments reflect your own personal feelings? Because, as Architectural Digest editor in chief Margaret Russell says in the 2015 Netflix documentary IRIS:
“I think what fascinates me about Iris is that she’s the perfect example of the intersection of fashion and interior design and art. She’s been exposed to so many different areas of creative worlds, from being an interior designer to being involved with Old World Weavers, [which] for those who aren’t aware is this iconic company that Stark then bought, but their fabrics are in some of the finest houses that we photograph, still on a daily basis.”
From humble beginnings as a hard-working decorator (whose husband, Carl, would tag along to clients’ homes with a toolbox to help hang pictures), Apfel built one of the most important textile manufacturing operations of the midcentury era. And a venerably eclectic — “curated” in modern vernacular —wardrobe in the process, traveling the world to produce exact reproductions of 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century fabrics in partnership with specialized manufacturers, restoring many of America’s fine homes and museums, including The White House under nine presidents (including the Camelot era).
“Every great house in America had our stuff,” Apfel says in IRIS. “I had a very interesting clientele, they didn’t want to have things everybody else had. That started me traveling twice a year to Europe, and I was a very busy bee.”
For anyone who was fortunate enough to grow up with parents whose own travel collections and wardrobes or frequent haunting of antiques and vintage stores brought them to border on an expensive if academic hoarding habit, Apfel is a congenial, familiar, comforting, and zany character — a classic “more is more” maximalist who can regale you with the exact provenance (and as colorful an acquisition anecdote) for every single piece in her possession.
Which is why Apfel’s collection has captivated museum curators and design directors across the country of late, ever since The Costume Institute featured a selection of her infamous accessories collection at The Met in 2005. Bringing attention to the industry insider then already well into her eighties, the museum called Apfel “an American original in the truest sense, one of the most vivacious personalities in the worlds of fashion, textiles, and interior design, [who] over the past 40 years has cultivated a personal style that is both witty and exuberantly idiosyncratic.”
And it’s probably her sense of humor and self-awareness that make us love her best. Because if you’re not having fun, then just why? And as the folks at Mattel say, “Barbie is committed to shining a light on empowering role models past and present in an effort to inspire more girls.” And young ladies, like style prodigy Tavi Gevinson, are certainly inspired by Apfel — maybe because the nonagenarian also claims to be “the world’s oldest living teenager.”
To view the entire collection of special edition and one-of-a-kind Barbies, check out #MoreRoleModels.