The 93-Year-Old Style Icon Who Made Old Cool

In the age-old fashion v style debate, it has become a cliché that style never goes out of fashion. It may be true, but the idea of "timeless style" tends to conjure up images that are awfully dull; of "safe" colours and unchallenging shapes.

All of which makes Iris, a documentary fi lm celebrating the life of 93-year-old international style icon Iris Apfel, all the more wonderful. Apfel's outfi ts are the antithesis of dull. Her signature look involves lilac-rinsed white hair, spectacles with oversized round frames, clothing in exuberant prints and textures and, always, a surfeit of necklaces and bangles. "Another mad outfit," she observes drily of one typical ensemble.

How has she become so famous? It's been a long slow burn over a lifetime in fashion. She went to art school, she worked for Women's Wear Daily, and her sheer panache with what she wore marked her out from the start.

She recalls working at Loehmann's department store in New York and Mrs Loehmann, the founder (who "looked like something out of Toulouse-Lautrec and would sit on a high stool like a tennis umpire") fixating on her, and saying: "Young lady, I've been watching you. You're not pretty, you'll never be pretty. It doesn't matter. You have something much better. You have style."

That may be what confi rmed her instinct for bold clothing. "Life is grey and dull, you might as well have a little fun when you dress and amuse people."

What really raised her profile was Rare Bird of Fashion, an exhibition of her outfits and accessories at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005 – she is acknowledged to have one of the best collections of couture costume jewellery in the USA.

"Iris is an artist," says Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "What she uses all of her clothes and accessories to do is compose a new image. That, for me, is creativity. Other people would say it's just getting dressed..."

She has always been a hoarder of pieces she loves; looking at her wedding photographs from 1948, she muses that she still has, in a box somewhere, the pink satin shoes she wore that day. Her magpie eye for pretty things started aged 11, when she saved up 65¢ to buy a brooch from "an Aladdin's cave" of a shop in Greenwich Village. The film shows old photos of her and her husband Carl travelling the world, haggling with vendors for cloth – for their textile company, Old World Weavers, which made exact reproductions of 17th- to 20th century fabrics – and necklaces.

She still haggles for things that catch her eye on street stalls in New York and takes as much care composing her outfits. What's her secret? "I like individuality," she says. "So much of that is lost these days." But anyone looking to Apfel for a style prescription will be disappointed. "I don't have any rules," she says. "I'd only be breaking them. With me, it's not intellectual, it's all gut. I see something and I try it on. It's the process I like, even more than the wearing of it."