Finally, successful businesswomen are coming forward to reveal that their career paths didn’t necessarily follow the straight path they were expecting. While Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to “lean in” and not sacrifice their careers for an equally important role as wives and mothers, fashion icon Iris Apfel explains that she never had a “plan” to begin with.
Iris Apfel, who is a self-proclaimed “geriatric” socialite, boasts quite the resumé. She began as an editorial writer for Women’s Wear Daily, became a successful business owner and textile designer and later, an interior decorator, fashion designer, fashion professor, and style icon. But the key to Apfel’s abundant success was that she always followed her own path. Apfel asserts, “Doing your own thing is very good. . . if you have a thing to do.”
Following graduation from New York University, Iris Apfel (neé Barrel) was hired for her first job as an editorial writer or “copy-girl” for the renowned fashion trade publication, WWD, which paid a meager sum of $15 per week. Eventually, Apfel realized that she didn’t quite fit the mold of the other middle-aged female editors who were “too old to have babies and go on maternity leave and too young to die,” so she made a decision to leave the position. And with her decision came more opportunities including a job as an assistant to illustrator Bob Goodman, in which she received a more comfortable salary.
Apfel later went on to discover her love of interior design, but felt stifled when she found that she wasn’t able to fully execute her design plans if the textiles she had envisioned were not readily available. Thus, Apfel’s marriage to her husband Karl became one of her greatest business deals yet, as the couple co-founded the esteemed international textile house, Old World Weavers–which supplied high-end textile designs and restored antique fabrics. The Apfel’s high-profile clients included Estee Lauder and actress, Greta Garbo, and managed the White House restorations for several administrations, particularly Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton. While Apfel’s career shifted in a seemingly unrelated direction, it really didn’t deviate very far from Apfel’s love of design. Although the Apfel’s officially retired in 1992, Iris Apfel’s career didn’t end there…
Subsequently, while Apfel operated her successful textile business, she continued to explore her interest in fashion. Her travels to different countries to source materials for her company also resulted in the culmination of Apfel’s very unique wardrobe a mix of couture pieces with fleamarket finds. While Apfel followed her own rules of style, she helped to build her reputation in the industry by creating her own signature look which made her instantly recognizable to her followers. Apfel’s signature over-sized, round, black glasses paired with her over the top outfits became her trademark, but she always remained true to her own personality. Apfel states,“When I needed to wear glasses, I decided I’d wear glasses.” Apfel relates to her fans by encouraging women of all ages and body types to want to look good while accentuating elements of their own personalities through fashion.
Apfel’s strong following strengthened her influence in the industry, and lead her to carry out her latest endeavors in her nineties, including her 2005 textile exhibit entitled “Rara Avis” or (Rare Bird) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which featured several pieces from Apfel’s own unique wardrobe.
As Iris Apfel remains a style guru for women of all ages, she recently launched her latest career in fashion design. Apfel’s handbag and jewelry collections feature elements inspired by her own unique fashion sense, with a personal touch that is even sweeter–Apfel’s favorite color, turquoise is utilized in the lining fabric of each handbag. Apfel also debuted her fall 2013 “Rare Bird” collection for MAC makeup, inspired by Apfel, who is “a rare bird who has always been ahead of her time.”
Meanwhile, Apfel is also an esteemed professor of fashion merchandising at the University of Texas. She shares her real-world industry experience to her students, exposing them to the many different facets that are part of the fashion industry.
I think the most important lesson to take away from Apfel’s story is that we will progress in our careers if we follow our own paths while keeping in mind our passion. In doing so, money and success will follow accordingly. I believe that if you enjoy your work, you’re all the more wealthy because you’re job won’t be a grueling daily chore if it’s meaningful to you.