Designs on Daphne

She is one of the most recognisable style icons of today, inspiring the creations of countless designers. But Daphne Guinness has over the years proven she is much more than a mere clothes horse, trying her hand at fashion design, perfume, and film. This year the trained opera singer also embarks on her first musical recording.

In 2011 she gave the public a glimpse of her wardrobe and the fantastical world of her own fancy with an exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Below is my interview with the fabulous Daphne Guinness, published in Framed, September 2011

Daphne © René Hebermacher

A mix of Marchesa Casati and Miss Havisham, draped in veils, lace and ribbons and looking as though she had just emerged from a cocoon of webs, Daphne Guinness has been called many things. Muse, socialite, model, eccentric, and above all, fashion icon. But added to this she is also a couture collector, film producer, performer and parfumeur. She has a particular knack for creating distinct looks that inspire the fashion and art worlds around her whilst at the same time drawing her own inspiration from them. The skunk- haired British brewery heiress is known for her boundary-pushing looks and collection of one-of-a-kind couture pieces. Not to mention those heel-less 8-inch shoes. She embodies an other-worldliness and the fantastical, giving admirers and fashionistas something that has been lacking since Isabella Blow, a dear friend of Guinness, who tragically passed away in 2007. Daring originality and unfettered sartorial creativity have become her hallmarks. She has the means and the imagination to concoct and wear breathtakingly beautiful couture gowns. And we can’t seem to get enough of her. People, it seems are fascinated by her, as her Twitter account, where she has amassed almost 18,000 followers, would indicate.

The daughter of brewery heir Jonathan Guinness and granddaughter of the notorious Diana Mitford of the glamorous and scandalous Mitford sisters, Guinness grew up surrounded by artistic luminaries such as Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Dieter Roth and David Hockney, and she flitted between Ireland, England, France and Spain. Today, it is New York that she calls home. And she has made the city all her own, leaving her mark everywhere. She is one of the models used by friend David LaChapelle in photographs on display at the Lever House Art Collection. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, opposite her apartment building, there was the recent retrospective of her late friend Alexander McQueen, featuring many pieces owned by Guinness. Now, this September, following hot on the heels of the McQueen retrospective, the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) is dedicating an exhibition to Guinness’ style. The exhibition will showcase not only her personal collection of couture to be curated by her and FIT director Dr. Valerie Steele, but also her short films and creative forays. It will be the only chance to take a peek into a wardrobe and a world that most might only ever dream about.

There have been many exhibitions dedicated to designers, but it’s rare to walk into one that is dedicated to the style of an individual. However, this is no ordinary fashion exhibition. Guinness’ “funeral pony” look, as one journalist described it, has inspired and attracted some of the biggest names in fashion, including Alexander McQueen, Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford, Shaun Leane and Philip Treacy. She has had collaborative creative relationships with some of the most important figures in fashion today, translating their vision into beautiful pieces for her enviable collection and commissioning designs unfettered by nothing save the designer’s imagination. Over one hundred pieces will be featured at the FIT in an exhibition modeled on Guinness’ New York apartment. Amongst the creations will be haute couture pieces from Chanel, Balenciaga, Valentino, Azzedine Alaïa and John Galliano, as well as items of her own creation and pieces by newer designers such as Gareth Pugh and Noritaka Tatehana. And, of course there’s McQueen, who was a close friend and collaborator of Guinness. “He put to rest the idea that fashion is not art,” she once said of her friend. “He was an artist.”

When asked why she would possibly allow something as intimate as her wardrobe on public display, Guinness reveals a munificence in keeping with her role as self-created art patron. “I feel strongly that I am merely the guardian of these pieces. I am immensely fortunate to see them up close every day, and it’s an obligation and a pleasure to allow others to do the same if they so wish,” she states. “Clothes are material, and therefore of material value to me. One can’t hold onto possessions after death, which lends perspective when considering their importance. That said, I’d be lying if I claimed not to form attachments to certain pieces. I view clothing as a medium through which to express myself and value them as I do beautiful art.” Pieces as exquisitely crafted as these are a natural fit for the museum at the FIT. Nicknamed the Central Saint Martins of New York, the FIT owns more than 35,000 garments, 15,000 accessories and 30,000 rare textiles and is a veritable historical archive of costumes and garments throughout the ages.

Photograph by Kevin Davies
Photograph by Kevin Davies

In May 2011, coinciding with the opening of the Met’s record-breaking attendance McQueen retrospective, Guinness became art herself as she slithered and struck a series of poses and dressed for the Met Costume Gala in the window of Barney’s New York to an audience of admirers and curious onlookers. Changing from a custom-made Hogan McLaughlin catsuit to a pale grey, feathered Alexander McQueen couture creation – the dress she wore in a McQueen show when the designer died – she was a surreal but beautiful apparition. This was Guinness fusing the worlds of fashion and art. “It was partly an homage to Lee, partly an exploration of capability,” explains Guinness of the project. In one interview Guinness intimated, “There has been this discussion for longer than I’ve been alive that fashion is not art. My feeling is that this is another piece of evidence that, yes, there’s a commercial side to fashion that is needed, but there are these crossover moments that do become art.” Like the Marchesa Casati, the Barney’s project was Guinness as a work of art, as “an artist who paints with her wardrobe” as one journalist described her. She certainly has a knack for the theatrical, entrancing her audience like an exotic snake-charmer, but it was her persona and style on exhibition. There was no way of looking past that, a sentiment echoed by designer and close friend Valentino. “Life is a stage for Daphne. Funerals or balls, she always makes a performance,” he stated. And we gather to watch, no matter how bizarre or awkward, because she brings couture pieces to life in a way that no model or celebutante can, and no designer could truly envisage.

Guinness has proven that she does more than sit in the front row at couture shows and has fought to off the title of ‘muse’. She has dipped her toes into every creative pond. Two years ago she developed her own eponymous perfume in collaboration with Comme des Garçons, as well as a line of crisp white shirts. She briefly studied art at Slade and still draws and paints, harbouring a particular fancy for butterflies and insects (she has a Damien Hirst kaleidoscopic butterfly painting in her hall). Oh, she’s also a trained opera singer, with a lovely voice supposedly. This year has brought with it a number of other inspired projects, including a sculptural, diamond-encrusted couture armour glove collaboration with British jeweller Shaun Leane. The piece pushes the boundaries of fine jewellery and could look right at home in a museum collection.

On view in 2011 at Hong Kong’s Fringe Club, the intimate London launch of the exhibition was held at art dealer Jay Jopling’s Georgian home. Guinness was laid in state, immobile on a slab beneath a white shroud – a funereal modern embodiment of Lady of Shalott – her be-gloved hand resting unveiled atop her. She has long been fascinated with armour, she says.

In 2004 Guinness produced a film, Sean Ellis’ indie ‘Cashback’, which received great acclaim and an Oscar nomination, followed by a short entitled ‘The Phenomenology of Body’. Now Guinness is about to embark on her third film – this time as an actress. “I always have new projects. My most recent is playing the lead role in ‘The Murder of Jean Seberg’ produced by Joe Lally.” Rumours of a book have also been circulating. Given her role as a modern day patron, and her association with so many renowned contemporary artists and designers, this pint-sized renaissance woman, bedecked in plumes and jewels is sure to have an intriguing tale to tell. “There are several new projects at the moment, but for those you’ll have to wait and see,” she says. Until then, delve into the enchanting and beautiful world of Daphne Guinness at the FIT Museum.

From the collection of Daphne Guinness, featured in the exhibition Daphne Guinness. All photographs courtesy The Museum at FIT

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