"Life these days, the world is so gray," the 98-year-old style icon tells PEOPLE. "That's what I like about this book. It's so chock full of color."

By Colleen Kratofil
July 15, 2020 09:00 AM
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Jemal Countess/Getty

Iris Apfel has no time for negativity — especially amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

"I spend a lot of time chastising my friends if they call me complaining and crying and being very bitter," the 98-year-old style star and tastemaker tells PEOPLE exclusively. "We have to make the best of it. And I tell them just to be happy that they were alive and well."

For Apfel, she says she's been doing "amazingly well" during the pandemic and that's in part, thanks to her positive attitude. "I have a philosophy to try to make the best of everything," the fashion icon, who has modeled for Kate Spade, MAC Cosmetics and has her own jewelry line for HSN, says over the phone.

After having "terrible" bronchitis in the middle of February, she's only left her home three times to go to the doctor. "Well, first of all, at my age, getting up in the morning, isn't a boring thing. If I get up and can function, I'm delirious. I'm stuck in Palm Beach. I've been sequestered here for four months. But I've managed very well. I have a lot to do."

Madeline Harper Photography

One of the things that's been keeping her busy is working with the University of Texas on a new 16-page coloring book, IRIS The Coloring Book ($45), which features her most iconic quotes, illustrations of her travels as a textile executive and depictions of her wardrobe and quirky apartment decor.

"It's very lighthearted and lively and it has a few of my sayings. I think I will be great fun for the summertime and people being inside more. It'll give them something different to do," Apfel says, encouraging people to use "nice, light, bright colors" to help boost their mood.

"Maybe if, once they finish it and see how much fun they've had, they can go off on something else and they can start to be a little more creative. I think if you're creative, you have more fun," Apfel shares.

Madeline Harper Photography
Madeline Harper Photography

Proceeds from the book will benefit fashion students at UT Austin, which includes covering expenses for the UT in NYC program, which is conceived, curated and led by Apfel, who also serves as Visiting Professor. 

For the past 10 years, Apfel has hosted the week-long program for about 16 of the best students at the university and shows them the variety of jobs available in the fashion industry. "I thought they should be aware that there are dozens of different facets of the fashion business that should be open, like licensing, and fashion forecasting, and public relations, and museum work and, oh a slew of other things," she explains. "We couldn't do the program this year [due to the coronavirus pandemic], but usually my kids come for a week, either in May or August, depending on the school calendar, and we have a fine time."

She continues: "They all tell me that it has been a whole life-changing experience. We're very proud of it. [The students] have gotten very good jobs and it's been really very interesting for them and for me."

But the best part of the experience? Being made a professor. "I love it when the kids call me Professor Apfel. I think it's so fun."

While catching up with the style star/professor, she said another thing that's been keeping her preoccupied during the pandemic is Instagram. "I was never much interested in my Instagram. [Managers] had me do it because I had to [for promotion] and I didn't pay any attention to it at all. But once the virus started, I began to be interested and I did some very interesting projects, including the closet series, which is just fabulous."

She started the hashtag #IrisYourCloset, which encourages people to put together their most "Iris-like" ensembles to share on the platform. "We got everybody engaged and I liked to do that. I like to make people happy and make people smile."

Overall, she calls her time spent at home a "blessing in disguise" because it's the first time she's slowed down her schedule since her husband, Carl Apfel, died in 2015.

"I'm a workaholic. And I've always worked myself crazy. And then, five years ago, my husband passed away. We had done everything together and I was devastated. I was in England promoting my documentary [Iris], and he died the day before I got home. So, it was very traumatic and I was crushed."

She continues, "I'm a very pragmatic person. And I finally decided, after weeks and weeks of terrible grief, that to just sit home and cry wouldn't help him, and it's certainly not helping me. And I was very lucky. The man upstairs took pity and saw to it that I got a lot of very interesting jobs and good commissions. And so, I started to work like a real nut, morning, noon and night and Sundays. And so, I've really been so, so tired. This has given me a chance to rest."

Apfel, who turns 99 in August, has been using some of this down-time to focus on self-care. "Every Saturday here is spa day," she says. "I go out on the terrace. And one [home care worker] gives me pedicure, and the other gives me a manicure. And then we go to the fridge and whatever's there we take and make a mask for my face. We use yogurt as a base. The one last week was great. It was yogurt with olive oil and honey. They're wonderful masks. They're not the billion-dollar things you have to buy in a bottle."

Even though she's enjoying the down time, she says she'll never stop working completely (she's continuing to design her line for HSN), and will never stop spreading positivity. "I think fashion should be fun and I think everything should be fun," Apfel says. "Life these days, the world is so gray. That's what I like about this book. It's so chock full of color. Or it should be. I hope people will be very bright [in their coloring] and it makes them happy."

IRIS The Coloring Book is available to buy now at universitycoop.com/iris for $45.