psy·chot·ic leop·ard sīˈkädik/ˈlepərd/ noun · anything that is funky, interesting, beautiful, niche, useful, and grabs one's attention

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Latest Bathroom Reading - Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel and How She Inspires Me

Posted by Lisa Johnson on

I read constantly, and am one of those people that can’t even eat alone without a book in front of me.  I have books on my night table, in the dining room, on the front seat of the car for when I wait at traffic lights, and even in the bathroom, so I can get at least four minutes per day while using my toothbrush timer.

The last “bathroom” book I read was Part Swan, Part Goose, a memoir by actress Swoosie Kurtz, which was an easy and quick read.  For a little while, I got a copy of the Mike and Molly television series, and thought her character, Joyce, was so well-written and played, that it made me want to know more about Swoosie's background and her perfect comic timing.

With that over, I grabbed the next book in my ever shifting pile next to the bed, which was a fashion book.  Even though my business is so based on fashion, it is not often that I actually read fashion books – I tend to glance at magazine articles, or if I do check out longer material, it’s more of the “how to find your style” kind of thing.  

This latest was a coffee table book by Eric Boman, entitled Rare Bird of Fashion:  The Irreverent Iris Apfel, and chronicled, in Iris’ own words, segments of her history and creative process, with large spreads of the most amazing photos ever, of her outfits and accessories, arranged on mannequins, each having a pair of round-framed glasses, just like her own.

I had never before heard of this woman, Iris Barrel Apfel, though recognized her famous face (and glasses!) in the photo frontispiece, and WOW, did she have a gift.  She said that someone once told her, “You’re no beauty, but you’ve got style,” when she was younger, and boy was that an understatement in terms of her knack for finding what might be disparate pieces and putting them together.

Paging through the photographs of this book, I felt the way I do when I am drawn to great art, and that is a feeling very similar to falling in love.  Something deep in my stomach is where it starts, which rises up through my chest, like desire or warmth, and then a flood of pure happiness when I look at whatever it is.

Aspects of Iris reminded me of myself – she would haunt flea markets decades ago, and marketplaces in foreign countries in search of treasures, and then she would wear them as is, or make them her own, whether they were a 19th century Tibetan tribal belt, or a child's twisty toy, and they always looked AMAZING.  She too was drawn to color and texture, and was able to combine them outrageously.  I have never seen such incredible arrangements of the unusual – and each was so her own.  She was almost like a walking curiosity chest in what she wore on a daily basis.

In her own words, she describes how fashion for oneself is really recognizing who you are, and expounding on it.  Not copying a trend, or trying to look a certain way, but basically, learning the essence of yourself, and finding ways to express that through what you don on your body.  

I thought about that, and how for so much of my life, I did not fully recognize my own style (and I’m sure it’s still developing), in part, because my nature is to see what I can get as cheap as I can.  It's not that I can't afford new things, but buying secondhand is so much more exciting, and department stores tend to depress me.  I hate looking at racks of the same thing.  Plus, it's a game to look through piles of stuff, and then experience a thrill of discovery when I find something so "me" within it.

I’ve managed to put together incredible outfits and accessorize on purely used stuff.  I always get complimented on what I wear, or jewelry adorning my ears, neck, and wrists, but once I saw Iris’ outfits, I thought, wow, sometimes it’s necessary to spend a lot of money, and that’s completely acceptable if what you're purchasing is "you."  Reminiscing on her younger self, she talked of a time in Paris when she saw a man carrying a coat which she “just had to have” and how she literally chased him into his office to do whatever she could to get him to sell it to her.  It turned out that the piece was needed for a photo shoot, but she somehow convinced him to let her have it anyhow.  She clearly felt so strongly about what she liked, but probably went farther than I did to get what she loved.  Sometimes it sounded like the items she would discover were like her own lost children, and she would do whatever it took, pay whatever price, to get them back!

 Another incredible thing about this book, besides the actual clothing and jewelry depicted on its pages, is the love between Iris and her husband Carl, who she was married to for more than 58 years.  It turns out that the photographs of the outfits on these pages, which include 149 color illustrations, were actually chronicled by Carl in archives, and the dozens of snapshots of his wife were mostly taken by him (so many of these costumes were not preserved just in memory). In the pictures of the two of them together, he too is often dressed in crazy costume, with occasionally a bow around his head, and you can see that his humor and good-nature were such a part of encouraging Iris to develop her own passion.  The two of them formed a company together called Old World Weavers, in which they gathered incredible fabrics from around the globe, and had them made into unique pieces of clothing for both themselves and others.

If I thought Anthropologie catalogues were something to draw inspiration from before, Iris Apfel took me to a whole new level!  I'm definitely taking a closer look at her!

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