The Pursuit of Personal Style An Eclectic Fashion Maven Creates a Signature Look; Foo Dogs as Handbags By TERI AGINS January 25, 2007; Page D8When it comes to fashion, it's difficult to create your own personal style. It not only takes lots of money but a discerning eye and a real self-awareness to figure out how to dress in an original way. In recent years, the fashion industry has recognized that more people are seeking an eclectic personal style. Consumers have been eschewing fashion's longtime arbiters -- elite fashion designers -- and calling more of their own shots. They are mixing and matching vintage and contemporary trends, customizing everything from Nike shoes to Armani ties, and putting together high and low fashion, for example, a $12 knit top from H&M with a $2,500 tweed jacket from Chanel. But true personal style is hard to pull off. Americans have "a puritanical culture that suggests if you are too self-consciously dressed, you are superficial, vain and narcissistic," says Harold Koda, curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York. When people do try to break away from trends, they find a new uniform instead of finding themselves, observes Nina Stotler, trend analyst at Peclers Paris, fashion industry consultants. "Everybody wants to look different, and everybody is trying so hard to look individual, and they end up looking the same," she says. For some pointers on navigating the minefield of personal style, we turned to one of its earliest adopters: Iris Apfel, a New York interior designer, who has had a love affair with fashion for most of her 85 years. While not a socialite, movie star or fashion model, Mrs. Apfel has been well-known in stylish circles and the design industry for her idiosyncratic chic. With her oversized owl spectacles and brushed back white hair, she was a favorite subject of society photographer Bill Cunningham. Mrs. Apfel's eclectic, unusual style caught the attention of the Costume Institute, which held a three-month show of her colorful wardrobe last year. Modern designers such as Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Karl Lagerfeld and Carla Fendi, even though they didn't know Mrs. Apfel personally, all came to the show to marvel at the 80 outfits culled from her more than 60 years of collecting. Over the course of the exhibit, 120,000 people visited. "You have to care deeply and at the same time not give a damn," says Mrs. Apfel, in her antique-filled Park Avenue apartment, wearing an oversized gray cashmere sweater, gray knit slacks, bangle bracelets and practical terry cloth slippers. Mrs. Apfel was able to assemble her extensive wardrobe in large part thanks to travel with her husband and business partner, Carl, who is now 92. The couple, now retired, founded Old World Weavers, a retailer of fine interior fabrics and antiques in New York, around 1950. Every year the Apfels spent three months abroad for buying trips and vacations to everywhere from France to Scotland to Morocco, Greece, Egypt and Turkey. An avid bargain hunter, Mrs. Apfel scoured flea markets and the racks at designer outlet stores and Target. In a bazaar in Tunis, she bought a red and black wedding outfit embroidered with real gold thread -- it made a "terrific top over a black leotard," she says. Since the 1970s, Mrs. Apfel attended end-of-the-season sales at haute couture salons in Paris, such as Gianfranco Ferre, Scherrer and Lanvin. Tall and svelte, she could fit into sample garments that were sold at deep discount. Today, her wardrobe is an exotic mix of garments and accessories that she collected over the years. "I always like to start with an architectural piece," she says. She begins with jackets or dresses, mostly sample-sale finds. She adds the accessories scouted from her travels, including heavy turquoise and silver necklaces, stacks of bangle bracelets, and trinkets such as Cambodian silver boxes in the shape of foo dogs -- ancient guardians of Buddhist temples -- which she carried as handbags. "I never shop with an outfit in mind," Mrs. Apfel says, adding that she is always on the lookout for something that is unique, and "it must make my heart pound," she says, hitting her chest. At a British flea market, she found jewelry that had been worn by a ceremonial elephant in Nepal. In the 1960s, she hired a dress maker in Venice to turn an expensive swath of upholstered fabric in a tiger print into a dress. She found an Italian shoemaker to make matching print boots and a satchel. There were some outfits that were more successful than others, she says. Mrs. Apfel suggests finding creative solutions for personal shortcomings. After she broke her hip a few years ago, she turned her walking canes into stylish props. Her lifelong signature is the layered look, which just so happens to be at the height of fashion right now. A native of Queens, N.Y., with a degree in art history from the University of Wisconsin, she was born with the fashion gene in her bloodline. Her Russian immigrant grandfather was a tailor; an aunt designed custom-made lingerie. Mrs. Apfel remembered growing up watching her fashionable mother "do magic with a scarf," at the boutique she owned in Long Island City. Her father, an importer of toys, musical instruments, and antiques from Germany "had a great sense of style," she says. Next month Mrs. Apfel's wardrobe will be the subject of an exhibit at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., and a new coffee table book, "Rare Bird of Fashion, the Irreverent Iris Apfel," by British photographer Eric Boman. Mrs. Apfel has had a love affair with fashion for most of her 85 years. "You have to care deeply and at the same time not give a damn," says Mrs. Apfel, who's known for signature owl spectacles and brushed back white hair.