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Fashion Icon Iris Apfel Shares Her Very Best Style Advice

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

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Should you spend some of your precious shopping budget on kitschy costume jewelry? According to the legendary Iris Apfel, obviously.

The 93-year-old White House interior designer turned New York fashion icon has had her own line of clothing and accessories for the HSN since 2011, and at yesterday's event celebrating her latest collection, she explained why accessorizing is so important.

"Jewelry is the most transformative thing you can have in your wardrobe," Apfel, decked out from wrist to elbow in giant turquoise bracelets and bespectacled in her trademark oversized frames, told Racked,. "If you have simple clothes, you can change the whole look of your outfit with just one piece."

The nonagenarian said she never envisioned herself as an actual jewelry designer though; she used to create pieces for fun in her younger years, and the process always felt natural.

"Everything I've been doing these days, I just throw myself into. But, this," she said, pointing to her new wares—huge bangles, bejeweled necklaces, and animal pendants, "I fell in love with. I welcomed the opportunity to do it because I've assembled pieces together, so it came naturally."

Jewelry designing for Apfel should indeed feel natural: Although she enjoyed a decades-long career in interior and textile design, she became a beloved fashion world fixture in her later years. Known for her whimsical approach to personal style, you won't find a photo where she's not decked out in loud patterns, bright lipstick, and, of course, a joyful array of baubles. She's been the subject of a coffee table book, the star of several advertising campaigns, and in 2005, had a fashion exhibit dedicated to her at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This October, filmmaker Albert Maysles of Grey Gardens fame will debut his documentary about Apfel at the New York Film Festival.

She sweetly attributes much of her style to her mom: "My mother worshipped at the altar of the accessory. She was so advanced. She had a boutique way back in the early '30s where she sold fabulous costume jewelry. She really was my inspiration; she's part of my DNA."

Apfel's been collecting jewelry ever since she was 11 years old, and now that she's well into her nineties, she implored us to "do the math to learn how many pieces of jewelry I own." In fact, Apfel has so much stuff—clothing, accessories, tchotchkes—that she keeps much of it in storage and has even teamed up with websites like One Kings Lane to cast off some of her collection.

Photo: Getty Images

Though Apfel enjoys a fanciful approach to accessorizing, she noted she wants her customers to buy items that "will make them feel like themselves."

"You have to look in the mirror and see who you are," she said. "It might be trendy, but you can't buy it just because Iris told you to. You don't want to buy something just because Angelina Jolie looked good in it."

She added that customers should stray from convention: "That's the problem today. People are always looking for an easy way to find their look, but you have to cultivate it. You should have the courage to try certain things. Just try it and see if you like it! The Fashion Police won't come and put you in jail if it doesn't look right. I think it's important to be experimental and open, but don't go after trends. If the trend is to buy dainty jewelry, someone like me would never buy it because I'd look like a fool."

Apfel openly admits she's "technologically impaired," but noted that she's a huge fan of fast fashion. She finds Zara and Forever 21 fun, especially for accessories, and added that she's particularly excited for the U.S. debut of H&M's sister store & Other Stories, whose campaigns Apfel will soon be featured in.

As for her many pearls of wisdom, Apfel said her best piece of advice is to simply be yourself.

"If you're not comfortable in your own skin, you won't be comfortable in your own clothes," she concluded. "And if you aren't comfortable in your clothes, no matter how glamorous they are, you're going to look stiff, which is no fun. I have friends who go heavy with cocktail clothes, but during the day they have nothing to wear. You have to look in the mirror and see who you are and buy what suits your way of life."