Style icon Iris Apfel, a Palm Beach resident so chic that the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted a whole exhibition to her aesthetic in 2005, has never been a fan of buying pieces just to archive them. “I never collected clothes to collect clothes,” Apfel, now 91, said earlier this year about her treasure trove, which numbers in the thousands of items. “I bought for me. To buy things and put them in a box to me is kind of dopey.”
That’s typical of Apfel’s generation. “Up until the 1970s, the collectors were women who wore the clothes,” says Harold Koda, head of the Costume Institute at the Met. “But then people began to buy older things that were too fragile to wear. The pioneer there was Tina Chow, with the Fortuny sale.”
The late Chow, a model, jewelry designer, and ’80s celebrity, fell madly for the work of Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny and eventually kept two closets—one for her clothes and one for important vintage couture. “She kept them better than most museums,” Koda adds.
With couture and vintage clothes, condition is paramount—well-preserved pieces command a huge premium. “Garments deteriorate,” says Phyllis Magidson, the curator of costumes and textiles at the Museum of the City of New York, which holds some 25,000 of them. “You have to look at the perishability of a garment. If you wear it, you might be the last person to do so.”
Iris has donated her mix of haute couture and flea-market finds to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where a new fashion gallery is slated for 2019. Apfel wears her collection, while other fashionistas never raid their own closets.