After enjoying her 98th birthday at the end of this month, Iris Apfel can keep the celebration going next month at the Peabody Essex Museum’s unveiling of the Iris and Carl Apfel gallery.
The artist, designer and model is expected at PEM’s Sept. 21 gala, which will give guests a chance to see her namesake fashion and design-focused space showcasing 15 of Apfel’s ensembles for the occasion. The gallery is part of a 40,000-square-foot, $150 million wing that has been designed by Ennead Architects of New York. The official ribbon-cutting is set for Sept. 28 at the Salem, Mass., museum.
Like many museums and cultural institutions around the globe, PEM is ramping up its fashion quota. Apfel has been pitching in for 10 years, since the “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel” exhibition had a successful run. In addition to 90 complete ensembles, Apfel has bestowed 1,000 separates and her late husband’s wardrobe.
Patrons may recognize Apfel’s name, likeness or designs from “Iris,” the 2014 documentary about her life; the Barbie Collector Styled doll by her, various books or modeling campaigns for Kate Spade. The noctogenerian also has signature accessories and a furniture collection. Petra Slinkard, the museum’s Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles, said, “One thing that Iris really symbolizes is that she is a very forward-thinking, very brave individual when it comes to design and style and pushing the boundaries.”
Referring to the fall 2009 Apfel show, Slinkard said, “One of the main takeaways that we saw as an institution was how inspired people felt by Iris’ style, her aesthetic and her approach to fashion. In this iteration of our fashion and design gallery, it will be a new experience that will kind of be a fresh look on that ‘Rare Bird of Fashion’ collection. This installation is a combination of fashion, decorative and industrial arts from past collections at large [as well as examples of her husband’s wardrobe].”
Visitors will also get an understanding of “this idea that design can be your life” in seeing how it touched the Apfels’ lives at various times and in multiple ways. Slinkard said, “I hope that people will see a little bit of themselves in her story. She definitely is an entrepreneur who to this day — in her late 90s — is still working on multiple projects. I hope people walk away feeling very inspired and empowered to look at what tools they have in their own lives, and how they can tinker with their style and their environment to something that is pleasing to them. They could sort of shake off any fear or sense of caution that they might be holding onto.”
As for how much age is a factor in Apfel’s appeal, Slinkard said, “For people who don’t know her well, that is one of the things that people admire. Isn’t she great continuing to do this at her age? But for people who know her, age is not a factor. This is just who she has always been. That’s the part that is inspiring. She is not letting the number of years that she has been on the planet slow her down in any way.”
Eighteen months into her role at PEM, Slinkard’s said PEM’s plans to establish a fashion initiative for the institution extend beyond making a commitment and creating a permanent space to display fashion and design. “PEM’s collection is very unique, eccentric and it gives up an opportunity to explore the notion of, ‘What is fashion and what is design in a unique and different way?’ It symbolizes that we are very serious about the study of fashion as it pertains to people’s lives and how we think about installations moving forward. In addition to the permanent gallery, we will continue our temporary exhibitions schedule which will always include fashion ones as well.”
PEM’s fashion mission is not limited to the footprint of its collection in the permanent or temporary galleries — students and scholars are also able to use the collection for educational purposes — and Apfel’s collection is a vehicle for that, she said.
This spring PEM will open “Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion,” an exhibition in partnership with the Gemeentemuseum at the Hague. That will encapsulate the impact and lasting legacies of female fashion designers — household ones like Chanel and more unknowns, too — over the past 250 years. “One of the goals of this is to highlight designers who have been more underrepresented, underappreciated and under-recognized to bring forth their impact as well,” she said.
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