Iris Apfel, renowned New York designer and style icon, dies aged 102

<span>Iris Apfel sits for a portrait at her 100th birthday party in New York. </span><span>Photograph: Noam Galai/Getty for Central Park Tower</span>
Iris Apfel sits for a portrait at her 100th birthday party in New York. Photograph: Noam Galai/Getty for Central Park Tower

Iris Apfel, the interior designer and fashion tastemaker who found fame as an octogenarian, has died aged 102.

Apfel’s agent, Lori Sale, confirmed her death on Friday, and said “working alongside her was the honour of a lifetime”.

“She was a visionary in every sense of the word. She saw the world through a unique lens – one adorned with giant, distinctive spectacles that sat atop her nose. Through those lenses, she saw the world as a kaleidoscope of colour, a canvas of patterns and prints,” said Sale.

Related: Iris Apfel: designer, model and fashion star – a life in pictures

It is understood Apfel died at her home in Palm Beach, Florida, on Friday.

As an eminent authority on antique fabrics, Apfel consulted on restoration projects including work at the White House.

She was the subject of several museum exhibitions and a documentary, and more recently starred in campaigns for H&M, eBay, Citroën and even had a Barbie doll made in her likeness.

The bespectacled New Yorker had carved out a vivacious, idiosyncratic personal style with a heavy dose of wit. Describing herself as “the world’s oldest living teenager” in her Instagram bio where she amassed more than 2 million followers, she wrote “more is more and less is a bore”.

Among those paying tribute was the US designer Tommy Hilfiger, who praised Apfel as an “innovator and leader” in the world of textiles and style, who “will go down in history”.

In a statement given to PA, he said: “Iris Apfel has become a world-famous fashion icon because of her incredible talent not only as an artist, but as an influencer. She has had an amazing effect on so many people with her huge heart and magic touch with everyone she meets.”

In 2005, her personal collection of vintage and designer accessories and clothes became the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Entitled Rara Avis (Rare Bird): the Irreverent Iris Apfel, it was the first time the Met had focused on a living female who wasn’t a designer. In another first, Apfel dressed the mannequins herself, styling them in her own unique and flamboyant manner.

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Apfel loved to mix designer pieces with more unique finds and clash colours, textures and prints. Eighteenth-century paste earrings and a Mexican hammered-silver belt were shown with couture pieces from Dior and James Galanos.

The response, mainly through word of mouth, was unprecedented. Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld attended the opening night and Apfel was catapulted to fashion fame.

After its success, the exhibition travelled to other museums including the Norton Museum of Art in Florida. In 2010, she bequeathed her entire Rare Bird of Fashion collection to the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts.

Born Iris Barrel in 1921 in Queens, New York, she studied art history at New York University and later attended art school at the University of Wisconsin.

Her first job was a copywriter at Women’s Wear Daily. She later worked for the interior designer Elinor Johnson and also the illustrator Robert Goodman.

In 1948, she married Carl Apfel. Two years later they launched the textile firm Old World Weavers and ran it until they retired in 1992. Their work included restoration projects for clients such as Greta Garbo and Estée Lauder, alongside work at the White House for nine presidents including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton.

Specialising in fabric reproductions from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the couple travelled extensively, searching for textiles they could not source in the US.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2015, Apfel explained it was one of the reasons they didn’t have children. “I don’t believe in a child having a nanny, so it wasn’t what we were going to do, but also having children is like protocol. You’re expected to. And I don’t like to be pigeonholed.”

Aged 91, she became Dazed magazine’s oldest cover star and in 2019, following advice from Hilfiger, she signed with one of the world’s biggest modelling agencies, IMG. At 101 she landed her first beauty campaign when she collaborated with Ciaté London on a makeup line.

When asked about ageing in a 2018 interview, Apfel said: “I wouldn’t want to stop the clock. No, that would be so boring. It would be like being caught in a time machine, a time warp. I don’t like that. I think variety is the spice of life.”