These days, calling Iris Apfel for a telephone interview is like crossing the main level of Grand Central Station at rush hour. The subject of a new documentary by the late Albert Maysles, Apfel has been rendered by his recent death the primary source for comment on the film, “Iris,” which opens April 29 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.;  727-8110) and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema (Broadway and 62nd Street;  757-0359).
The 94-year-old Apfel is more than up to the challenge — indeed, it is hard to imagine a challenge she can’t handle. But the profusion of callers and visitors with movie and video cameras makes for a peculiar kind of controlled chaos in her Palm Beach winter home, especially when experienced from the New York end of the conversation.
Apfel is one of the icons of the world of style, an interior designer whose work has graced the White House, whose textiles firm Old World Weavers was renowned for its museum restoration work, and whose personal style is a delightful riot of accessories, mix-and-match outfits that combine haute couture and thrift-shop chic. As she says in the film, “I like to improvise.”
It is a skill that stands her in good stead in both her personal appearance and her day-to-day activities, as does her no-nonsense approach to life itself.
Like Maysles, Apfel is a New York Jew (she grew up in Queens) who lived through the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. She is also an icon in a field dominated by Jews.
Asked about her Jewish identity, she demurs.
“I don’t like talking about religion too much,” Apfel says. “I try to avoid [discussing] politics and religion. There are enough controversial things I say anyway.”
The genesis of “Iris” the film was as off-the-cuff as anything Apfel has done.
“[Maysles] heard about me from a mutual friend,” Apfel recalls. “I was doing a program for the University of Texas at Austin where I take 15 of their best and brightest from their fashion and merchandising department and they come to New York. They stay for a week at the Waldorf and I try to show these children that fashion is a big umbrella. If they can’t get a job as designers, there are many rewarding facets of the business that people don’t know about — licensing, style forecasting, museum work, making perfume, all kinds of off-beat things they wouldn’t think of.”
Maysles called her and she turned him down flat.
“I wasn’t interested,” she says. “I had nothing to sell and no ego problems.”
A close friend in the industry told her she was crazy to say no. So she got back in touch and said yes. She hasn’t regretted the change of heart.
“We got on very well,” she says of the filmmaker.
The doorbell rings and she says, “Maybe someone will answer the door.”
Someone does and the visitors turn out to be a video crew. Apfel greets them and then returns to the phone.
“Everybody thinks we knew each other forever,” she says of Maysles. “We never laid eyes on each other until we started to work. He didn’t work like everybody else; he said he would just follow me around.”
The end product is a pure dizzying delight. In short, it is a perfect reflection of Iris.