Salem is about to become a far more fashionable city thanks to a 90-year-old fashion icon who says she will bequeath a significant slice of her couture collection to the Peabody Essex Museum.
Iris Apfel, the celebrated New York fashion doyenne best known for her saucer-sized glasses and chunky jewelry, will give the Peabody Essex more than 600 pieces of clothing and accessories by world-famous designers, a trove that she has amassed over more than five decades. The gift will substantially expand and modernize the museum’s fashion and textiles department.
Neither the museum nor Apfel would speculate on the value of the collection - which includes clothing by Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Dior, and Alexander McQueen. Apfel and her husband, Carl, will also bequeath an undisclosed sum that will pay for a fashion gallery in a new wing of the Peabody Essex slated to open in 2017.
All 600 pieces were featured in the show “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel’’ which originated at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005, and traveled to the Peabody Essex in 2009. Impressed by the museum and its staff, Apfel decided to bequeath the collection to Peabody Essex.
The vivacious and droll Apfel, who refers to herself as “the world’s oldest teenager,’’ has been donating between 80 to 90 pieces of clothing and jewels from her collection annually since 2010. With this latest gift, Apfel will have earmarked nearly 900 pieces of her collection for Peabody Essex.
“If I were to wake up one morning and say ‘OK, we’re going to build a collection of contemporary fashion, and we’re going to do this piece by piece,’ one would need several lifetimes to do it,’’ said Peabody Essex chief curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan. “But Iris’s generous gift has given the museum an opportunity to do this. It’s thrilling.’’
Pieces from Apfel’s more-is-more collection - a mashup of Lanvin gowns, vintage Halston, 19th-century haute couture, and flea-market finds - have been borrowed by several museums to fill gaps in shows highlighting various designers.
At one time, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum expressed interest in acquiring the collection. But after working with Peabody Essex, Apfel decided to donate to the growing Salem museum, which is still perhaps best-known for its expansive maritime art collections, as well as wide-ranging collections from around the Pacific rim.
“I think Peabody Essex is a fabulous place,’’ Apfel said. “Having dealt with a lot of art museums, I can tell you that I was very pleased with the way that it’s run. I think they’re quite cutting edge. This museum is much more cross-cultural than others I’ve worked with and mixes it up a bit.’’
Currently, the Peabody Essex fashion collection is strong in garments and accessories from the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. But post-1940s, its holdings are sparse. The Apfel collection will certainly change that, and perhaps spur other fashion donations.
The gift coincides with a donation from George and Nancy Putnam of Putnam Investments, which will allow the museum to hire a curator of textiles, fashion, and costumes.
“Fashion is something that museums are recognizing, and I think growth of a fashion collection is something that’s entirely consistent with our convictions,’’ said Dan Monroe, the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum.
While the Apfel collection is sizable, it is not the largest fashion donation to a local museum. That distinction goes to the Museum of Fine Arts, which received a donation of 5,000 historical fashions and textiles in the 1940s. More recently, the MFA made news in 2009 when designer Arnold Scaasi donated more than 120 pieces to the museum, which in turn purchased Scaasi’s sketches and archives for an undisclosed sum.
The Apfel collection is “a huge gift, and I think it’s a huge commitment from the Peabody Essex both toward displaying contemporary fashion and storing and housing it,’’ said Pam Parmal, curator of textile and fashion arts at the MFA.
At 90, Apfel’s star is on the rise. Her skill at assembling quirky ensembles - such as a feathered bolero jacket with a hippie maxidress, accessorized with strand upon strand of crabapple-sized baubles - has fascinated fashion academics and teenagers alike. In the past year, she has become the face of MAC Cosmetics, launched her own line of handbags, designed and promoted jewelry on HSN, created a ready-to-wear collection for Yoox, and collaborated on a collection of eyeglasses. She will soon be the subject of a documentary. The New York Times has dubbed her “fashion’s latest pop star.’’
She is an artist who uses herself as a canvas to experiment with fashion. Originally a textiles manufacturer, she developed close ties in the fashion world, allowing her to build a staggering and idiosyncratic collection of clothes. One of the biggest challenges facing the Peabody Essex will be trying to replicate and maintain Apfel’s cacophonous chic in its displays.
“She’s inspired a lot of other people to realize that they can have fun and be individuals with clothing and accessories,’’ said Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “She certainly has many museum-worthy pieces in her collection.’’
Apfel makes it clear that for all the fuss over her style and her wardrobe, she never set out to be a collector. These are clothes she purchased to wear, not to sit on hangers.
“I bought these things not because they had a certain name or a certain value, but because I liked them,’’ Apfel said. “I know I’ve touched a nerve with the people because women have told me that I’ve inspired them and encouraged them to be more creative. Some have even told me I’ve changed their lives. The fact that I can bring a little glamour is pretty exciting for me.’’