The 98-year-old style icon shares the philosophy behind her bold and whimsical wardrobe
I was crazy with joy and went straight to S Klein, the granddaddy of all discount shops on 14th Street in Manhattan, because I knew I’d get a good bargain there. Right away, I found a dress I thought I simply had to buy – but then I remembered my mother telling me I must never buy the first thing I saw, I must comparison-shop. So I went uptown and looked around the big department stores – Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Best & Company – where naturally everything was much more expensive. I decided I’d better go back and get that dress, but when I got there, I found it gone! I was frantic and breathlessly looked through all the racks, found it, gave thanks to God and 12 dollars and 98 cents to the cashier. I put that dress in my hot little hands and went on to accessorise my prize. I bought myself some beautiful leather shoes for three dollars and 98 cents, a pretty straw bonnet, a pair of gloves, and I still had enough change to take the subway home to Queens. My family was overjoyed: my mother praised my taste; my father said I was economically sound. Only my grandfather, who was an old-world master tailor, found fault with the buttonholes. But then again, he could never find a buttonhole to satisfy him.
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For me, jewellery is the most transformative part of a woman’s wardrobe – it can change the look of a whole outfit. You can take the same outfit right through from morning to cocktails simply by re-accessorising. I especially love costume jewellery, because I think the artists who make it are freer in their approach. I’ve been collecting pieces since I was 11 years old, and I still have the first one I ever owned. I bought it from a shop in the basement of a tenement building in Greenwich Village – it was filled with all kinds of junk, but I mentally transformed it into Aladdin’s cave. The store was owned by an elegant elderly gentleman who had fallen on hard times. While the cuffs on his suit were frayed, he always wore a boutonnière, a monocle and spats. He was fascinated with me, as he had never seen a kid so interested in his junk. Upon arrival, he would kiss my hand and treat me like a mini duchess… I was smitten. There was this one brooch I went cuckoo about, with pretty pieces of glass inside that I imagined were rose-cut diamonds. I was very fanciful back then. He gave me a price that was way over what I could afford, but I saved my pennies and once I had what I thought was a respectable sum, I went back to bargain with him. We haggled and haggled, and he eventually let me have it for 65 cents. I treasure it to this day.
Anxious to break into editorial fashion, I took a post at Women’s Wear Daily in New York – the lowest possible job you could get. Now everything’s electronic, but at the time publishers would hire copy boys and girls to take pages from one editor to the next. I was constantly walking back and forth around this rambling building for the magnificent sum of 15 dollars a week. The only good thing about that job was that it saved me having to go to the gym! Still, I loved magazines. Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue were my bibles – I couldn’t wait for the next issue to come out, and I’d read each one from cover to cover.
I think it’s very funny that I’m considered a style icon nowadays. My husband [Carl Apfel, who died in 2015] and I used to laugh about the whole thing, because I’m not doing anything I wasn’t doing 70 years ago – it just seems to have finally caught on. I always like to dress in my own way; I’m not like everybody else. I find a lot of people say they want to be individual, but they’re just paying lip service. I often say, “It’s better to be happy than well dressed”, by which I mean it’s wonderful to look good, but if it becomes a chore and makes you nervous and uncomfortable, it isn’t worth it. Life is very grey and the world is not the kindest place, so I think fashion should always be fun. Over the past decade or two, I’ve tried to help people understand that. Some of them have written to tell me I’ve given them courage and joy, and some have even said I’ve changed their lives. I’m grateful for that.
I’ve been quarantined for more than three months now. I don’t bore myself, though – I enjoy my own company, and really, the lockdown has been a blessing in disguise, because I’d been working like a fiend and it has been 10 years since I had a vacation. I’m not a spring chicken any more so I was very tired, and I’ve had a wonderful enforced rest. My apartment’s right on the water in Palm Beach and I consider myself fortunate that I can sit out on my terrace every day.
I always like to make people happy, especially at a time like this, and I have a lot of fun with my Instagram feed. So back in March, I said to my followers, now you’re at home and have nothing better to do, why not get everything out of your closets, put things together in a fun, creative way and then send me some photographs? The thing took off like wildfire – more than 3,000 people from over 65 countries got in touch with some tremendous pictures, not just of women but of men and babies and dogs and pussycats too. Last week someone sent in a set of dog portraits, all wearing outfits of mine, so I posted them with the caption ‘Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery’.
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