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For fans of bold fashion, Iris Apfel’s 100th birthday year is proving to be a banger — which is just as she designed it.
On Tuesday, five days before her 100th birthday, the interior designer-turned-fashion icon released “The Iris Apfel Zentennial Collection” of eyewear with Zenni Optical. Complete with five frames in multiple colorways, the capsule is the first original collection to come out of Apfel’s four-year partnership with Zenni. It kicked off in May with an Apfel edit of 100 existing Zenni frames.
It’s the latest in a series of brand partnerships Apfel has introduced since January. Also in May, Apfel curated four home decor collections for Lowe’s and a colorful style assortment for Etsy. According to Apfel, more partnerships are in the works.
Michelle Ticknor, head of lifestyle and social impact partnerships at Zenni, said the company started working with Apfel following a cold call from her agent at the end of last year. “They were thinking about the different ways they wanted to celebrate and the different categories that made sense for Iris, to kick off her year,” she said.
“An outfit isn’t complete without a signature accessory, or many, to show off your individuality. Mine are glasses — the bigger and brighter, the better,” Apfel said. “I knew I had to find a fabulous eyewear partner to launch an eyewear line.”
A second all-new Iris x Zenni collection is set for this year around the holidays, and at least two per year will roll out through 2025. Moving forward, shoppers can expect to see a Valentine’s Day collection, collaborations with well-known Apfel fans and Apfel-designed accessories beyond eyewear, including pouches and scarves.
Launched in 2013, Zenni is a DTC brand known for its affordable prescription glasses, which average $40. Its Apfel collaboration comes just months after its launch of reading glasses. Since the start of the pandemic, many consumers of all ages are shopping online for glasses for the first time. It also hasn’t hurt that Zoom, which offers a shoulders-up view of meeting participants and their style, has become the new conference room.
Zenni’s other collaborators have included designers Coco and Breezy and Cynthia Rowley, actor Rashida Jones, sports teams including the San Francisco 49ers, and esports’ Call of Duty League.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you have more Gen-Z partners?’” said Ticknor. “But our slogan is, ‘Eyewear for everyone.’” She said Zenni looks for partners who are authentic, relatable and speak to its audience’s values. Plus, they must be up for taking an active role in the partnership, rather than be “just a figurehead.” The company’s currently looking to link with people men relate to, as it looks to grow its male audience.
Sales of the Iris Apfel Edit, in May, exceeded sales expectations, said Ticknor, and the shopper skewed young — primarily Gen Zers and millennials. It was categorized according to themes representing Apfel’s passions, including travel, flea markets, bazaars and bold color. Her signature oversized round frames were among the styles.
Prior to the Zentennial launch, Zenni’s team traveled from San Francisco to Apfel’s Palm Beach home four times for photoshoots design sessions, which supplemented Zoom meetings and phone calls. They captured “a tremendous amount of content” for lookbooks and videos featuring intimate conversations, among other marketing tools. “Our last photoshoot was for four collections,” Ticknor said.
“[Iris] is not knitting, sewing, golfing. She works,” said Ticknor. “She’s one of the busiest women I know.” She recalled a time in Palm Beach when Apfel said that she had spent eight hours on the phone every day the week prior. And the Zenni crew was often shooting videos of her until after 9 p.m., per her request to keep going. “She has more energy than a teenager.”
For the new collection’s materials, Apfel chose colors from a “candy store” of hand-polished acetate, Ticknor said. New-to-Zenni colors include a cerulean, inspired by Apfel’s love of denim. The styles also feature inlaid metal engraving and “widened temples to make Iris happy.” New round and cat-eye shapes are included, as are modified versions of frames Apfel liked from the May edit. “She was in the weeds with us on everything, including the logo and the branding,” Ticknor said. “She’s a designer at heart.”
“This collection is for anyone who strives to stand out from the crowd — breaking through the sameness is hard right now,” Apfel said. “You’ll see my love for architecture, and bold colorways, patterns and décor come through. These things will never stop inspiring me.”
The glasses, which are available in prescription and blue-light-blocking lenses, are Zenni’s most expensive to date, at $45.95-$49.95. Still, according to Ticknor, the price allows “fashionistas to buy a pair for all of their moods, seasons and days of the week.”
To market the collection, Zenni is relying on an array of fashion and lifestyle micro-influencers who were gifted glasses. Influencers specializing in areas including DIY fashion and photography will be enlisted for future collections. Zenni will also lean on affiliate marketing, earned media — “because people love her,” Ticknor said — and Apfel’s 1.6 million Instagram followers.
Outside of digital, a yet-to-be-announced birthday activation is in the works, and Zenni plans to replicate some of its marketing efforts used for Apfel’s May edit. They included advertising on the back cover of airline magazines and on a billboard at the entrance of New York’s JFK Airport. The company also sponsored a Times Square billboard throughout the summer featuring all of its collaborators.
The Iris x Zenni collaboration comes as more fashion brands are prioritizing inclusivity in their products and marketing to serve and speak to shoppers of all ages. More are working with influencers ages 50-plus, and brands like Michael Kors are featuring older models including Naomi Campell, 51, on their runways. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Gap Inc. celebrated the 90th birthday of its co-founder, Doris Fisher, by announcing a dedicated day of service and posting happy birthday messages across its brand’s social channels.
“Overall, it’s wonderful to see the industry making strides towards inclusivity, but I do think the industry could do more and push the envelope, especially when it comes to age,” said Apfel. “I am embracing getting older and using my incredible life experiences in my work I always say that being passionate about my projects and putting my heart and soul into them has kept me young.”
According to Zenni, its 2020 sales were up 29%, compared to 2019. to $329 million. Its seen upward of 20% growth in each of its seven years in business.