The Definitive Guide to Business

95-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel says the only successful path is your own

Iris Apfel speaks onstage at the The New York Times International Luxury Conference in Miami in 2014.
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Iris Apfel speaks onstage at the The New York Times International Luxury Conference in Miami in 2014.

Iris Apfel became a fashion icon by breaking all the rules. Her success is a result of following her own quirky style and doing all the things they tell you not to do.

In her vibrant outfits, the 95-year-old Apfel is known to layer bright colors and patterns. She also pairs couture items alongside flea-market finds. Her individual brand of style earned such respect that she was the feature in a 2005-06 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, "Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection."

Unfortunately, she says there's no secret to being the next Iris.

"Everybody's looking for a road map. I can't tell somebody how to start," Apfel said in an interview last week with CNBC at the launch of her partnership with the Macy's brand INC International Concepts, called "Iris Meets INC."

"You have to find your own way."

Finding your passion is a matter of intense curiosity and trial and error, according to Apfel.

"Giving people these blanket rules and telling people this is the way you have to do it is a curse. Everybody has a different kind of personality and everybody relates differently to things, and I think you have to do things that suit you," Apfel said. "You test it. If you like it, you do it. It's like trying on a dress."

In recent decades, Apfel has become a design icon, but early in her life, she and her late husband, Carl, owned and operated a textile business, Old World Weavers, which took her all over the world in search of artisanal fabrics. She went on to work on interior and restoration design projects for nine U.S. presidents at the White House.

Iris Apfel
Source: INC International Concepts
Iris Apfel

Apfel studied art and art history in school. She never expected to be a business owner. She says she learned how to run her own business on the job.

"I just learned by osmosis," she said. "I think that's the best way. You can learn certain rudiments from a book, but if you want to do any art or craft, you have to do it and dirty your hands."

"I did everything," Apfel added. "I really learned from the bottom. I started a lot of things I didn't know anything about and I just learned as I went, which I think is a wonderful way to do it."

Looking back, she says it's important as you are discovering your own path to go carefully, step by step, day by day. Learn and discover, but be patient with the process.

"Take tiny steps and do it intelligently and be sure you have some background and strong footing," she said. "You have to work within what you have. You can't go cuckoo and put on a big front, if you haven't got anything to back it up."

For an outsized personality who has been the subject of her own documentary, "Iris," Apfel's advice is remarkably down to earth: Try things, work hard, and learn as you go.

"I have been very level-headed all my life. I have always said my head is in the clouds, but my feet are on the ground," Apfel said. "So it's a big stretch in between, which is not always comfortable, but I don't want my head to come down, I don't want my feet to come up, so you work within that framework."