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Sun November 13, 2011
Art & Design

Daphne Guinness: An Icon On Fashion's Cutting Edge

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 11:16 am

A good friend of mine is a Marcel Proust scholar and former milliner. She had just been to see fashion icon and brewery fortune heiress Daphne Guinness's exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology's Museum at FIT in New York when she sent me this email:

"Woke up thinking about Proust & DG again, realizing that Proust writes from the intersection of modernity and memory, and that is the same spot at which Daphne Guinness gets dressed each day. A constant lively juxtaposition of everything in life, served up on the surface of a tiny blonde."

Named after its subject, the exhibit includes more than 100 pieces of contemporary, cutting-edge clothing from Guinness' own couture collection, which she's masterfully filled with the likes of Chanel, Valentino and Alexander McQueen.

Though she once dressed for a gala at the Met in the display window of a Barney's department store, Guinness is a decidedly shy person. Her attire includes personal armor in the form of over-the-knuckle diamond pave motorcycle rings.

On the day we meet, she has two rattail combs stuck in her upswept hairdo like a tiara. She wears a white tunic over black leggings and towering black platform shoes with no heels, a signature style for her. She's waif-thin, with platinum and jet black hair — like a skunk.

According to Guinness, her tunic is an old Chanel dress she's had for ages. Despite her immense collection, she says she often falls into an effortless routine when picking out what to wear.

"I'm normally late, so I just kind of throw on the sort of thing that's at hand. And then I'll go through phases of wearing the same thing again and again and again — and my wardrobe is mainly about black and white, so it goes together," she says. "I'll play with certain elements, but I don't really think about it too much. If I start thinking about it, that's when it goes wrong."

But not so terribly wrong considering she now has an entire exhibit dedicated to her wardrobe. Guinness is one of the show's curators, along with Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT.

The two met for the first time at a luncheon more than two years ago. Steele says that within an hour of meeting Guinness, she asked if the fashion icon would consider putting a show together that highlighted pieces from her collection.

"There have been so many shows on the individual, great designers," Steele says, "but very few about the great, individual women of tremendous personal style who are really the ones who make the clothes come alive off the runway."

Together, Guinness and Steele combed through more than 3,000 pieces at Guinness' London and New York homes until they narrowed their selections down to about 100 garments that fell into categories like sparkle, exoticism, dandyism and amour.

A Dreamer

Guinness' grandmother was the fascist writer Diana Mitford, who served time for her ties to Adolf Hitler. Guinness herself grew up in England, Ireland and Spain. She says she was a tomboy, and yet a bit fragile — a dreamer.

"I've always been more slight and I've always sort of felt that I needed to be protected, especially with so many rowdy brothers and sisters," she says. "I always wanted to be sort of a knight of the Round Table; it sort of appealed to the idea of sort of [Sir] Gawain and the Green Knight."

Guinness' early life was quiet and secluded but over the years she began to emerge from what might be described as the chrysalis of extraordinarily privilege. At 19 the heiress married Greek shipping magnate Spyros Niarchos and quickly became the mother of three. Then, in 1999, she divorced and found herself swept up in the avant-garde fashion movement.

Today, she might collect an old Balenciaga garment, or a purple one-piece by an art student from Chicago — and then wear them together.

"One acts as a catalyst between two artists," Guinness says. "It's sort of like, 'Let's do that and let's do that,' and then it'll be a sort of natural thing. One's not very conscious of what one does."

Good Friends And Inspiration

Some of Guinness' greatest inspirations have been her close friends, fashion journalist Isabella Blow and designer Alexander "Lee" McQueen. Blow — who was known for fantastical headwear like a 3-foot-tall sailboat hat — had wanted to introduce Guinness to McQueen, whose career she had helped launch. But the shy Guinness demurred, preferring to admire the designer from afar. And then one day, the two had a serendipitous meeting in London.

"I was walking across Leicester Square with a kimono on and this person goes, 'Oy!' and I turn around and he goes, 'I'm Lee, I'm Alexander, [and] I'm the person who you don't want to meet!' " Guinness remembers. "It was so funny."

McQueen's studio became a haven for Guinness, a place where they talked about their lives more than they talked about fashion.

Then, in 2007, Blow, who had been fighting cancer, committed suicide. She was 48. When Blow's clothing went up for auction, Guinness bought it all just to take it off the market.

Three years later, in 2010, McQueen, then 40, also committed suicide and Guinness was again in mourning. Just six months earlier, Guinness had asked McQueen to consider doing a retrospective of his work at the Met. He said he thought it was too soon.

The Met did eventually run a McQueen retrospective. It showed last summer, more than a year after his death, and became one of the museum's most successful exhibits, drawing more than half a million visitors.

Guinness, who lives near the Met, remembers the pain of watching the collection go on.

"I kept on thinking, This is like a bad dream," she says. "This is just not supposed to happen."

But McQueen's presence lives on in Guinness' collection. Her own show includes an opera coat he made of raven feathers and a blue silk Edwardian jacket with solid silver life-size eagle epaulets — both gifts from her good friend.

'The Artistry Of Fashion'

Though it is seen and admired by many, Museum at FIT Director Valerie Steele says that the fashion world is a vulnerable one.

"That's what you're really appreciating when you're talking about the artistry of fashion," she says. "It's not just the genius of one or another designer, but it's also the whole centuries of civilization that went into the craftsmanship."

But fashion is still a fragile thing.

"[It] could disappear under the forces of fast fashion," Steele says. "There's no need for it."

No need for it in that same way there's no need for a piece of music, a painting or Guinness' extraordinary footwear, which she swears is comfortable. And the same way there's no need for a catsuit, worn from neck to toe, like the one by British designer Gareth Pugh, whose futuristic work is often considered fashion as performance art. Pugh's catsuit is made of leather with thousands of protruding nails, giving it the appearance of a porcupine. After seeing the piece at a Paris runway show, Guinness asked Pugh to make one for her.

"He called me and said, 'Do you want the nails in the bum?' And I said, 'Yes, absolutely,' and he said, 'Well, you're going to give yourself a lot of acupuncture,' " she remembers.

A Fashion Individualist

Guinness has famously said that she doesn't do event dressing; for her just being alive is an event in itself. So she uses fashion as a way to champion individualism. If someone asks her why she doesn't just wear jeans, her answer is simple: "Because I don't like them."

"I don't tell anybody else what to wear," Guinness says. "I would never dream of it."

Her goal for the exhibition at the Museum at FIT is to inspire the next generation of designers and ensure that they understand the importance of being true to themselves and their work.

"[I want] them not to have to feel that they have to wear this or that in order to be accepted or acceptable," Guinness says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, host: A good friend of mine runs a Marcel Proust reading firm at the 19th century library in Providence, the Athenaeum. She's also a former milliner and had just been to see the fashion icon Daphne Guinness' show at the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

There are over 100 pieces of contemporary cutting-edge clothing in the collection. Afterward, my friend sent me this email: Woke up thinking about Proust and Daphne Guinness again, realizing that Proust writes from the intersection of modernity and memory, and that is the same spot at which Daphne Guinness gets dressed each day. A constant lively juxtaposition of everything in life, served up on the surface of a tiny blonde.

Though she once got dressed in Barney's New York window, Daphne Guinness is decidedly shy. Her attire includes personal armor, fingers bedecked with over-the-knuckle motorcycle rings in diamond pave.

DAPHNE GUINNESS: A crumb. Although it used to be an earring, but I recycled it.

LYDEN: Waif-thin, with hair striped both platinum and jet like a skunk's. On the day we meet, she has two rattail combs stuck in her upswept hairdo like a tiara. Black leggings and towering black platform shoes with no heels, another of her signature elements and an elegant white tunic.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Beautiful.

GUINNESS: This is a very old white dress that I've had for ages. This is an old Chanel piece. I'm normally late, so I just kind of throw on the sort of thing that's at hand. And then I'll just go through phases of wearing the same thing again and again and again. My wardrobe is mainly about black and white, so it goes together. I'll play with certain elements, but it's - I don't really think too much about it. If I start thinking about it, that's when it goes wrong.

LYDEN: Not so terribly wrong. One historian's talk on the show is called "Fashion Icons from Marie Antoinette to Daphne Guinness." Valerie Steele, FIT's director, is also the show's co-curator, along with Guinness herself.

VALERIE STEELE: I met Daphne a little more than two years ago at a luncheon. And within an hour of meeting her, I was asking her if she would do a show on her collection and her personal style, because there have been so many shows about individual great designers, but very few about the individual women of tremendous personal style who are really the ones who make the clothes come alive off the runway and in real life.

LYDEN: They went through the clothes at her homes in London and New York. Guinness owns over 3,000 pieces. These were culled to about 100 couture garments in six different areas like sparkle, exoticism, dandyism, armor. Daphne Guinness is an heiress to the Guinness brewing fortune. Her grandmother was the fascist writer Diana Mitford. She grew up partly in Spain. She was a tomboy, she says, and yet, a bit fragile.

GUINNESS: I don't know. I'm - I've always been more of a slight. And often, I've sort of felt a little bit like I kind of needed to be sort of like protected, especially with lots and lots of sort of rowdy brothers and sisters. And I always wanted to be a knight of the Round Table. It was sort of an idea that appealed to my senses kind of Gawain and the Green Knight. I'm afraid I have a - still have a very vivid imagination.

LYDEN: What changed for Daphne Guinness was her emergence from the chrysalis of extraordinary privilege. She's in her early 40s. At 19, she married a Greek shipping magnate and quickly became the mother of three. Then a decade ago, she divorced.

Her fashion style emerged as avant-garde fused with literature and theory. She might collect a vintage Balenciaga gown or a purple one-piece by an art student from Chicago and then put them together.

GUINNESS: One acts as a catalyst between two artists or, you know, and then it's sort of like, let's do that and let's do that. And then it could be a kind of natural thing. One's not very conscious of what one does.

LYDEN: It's an interior state of mind, a designer's coat worn backwards or diamonds worn on the inside of a collar, remaining unperceived to all but her. Some of her greatest inspirations were her close friends, the British fashion journalist Isabella Blow and Alexander "Lee" McQueen. Blow, known for her fantastical headwear like a three-foot-tall sailing ship, really wanted her friend Guinness to meet McQueen. But the shy Guinness demurred, preferring to admire him from afar. And then one day in London.

GUINNESS: I was walking towards Leicester Square with a kimono on, and this person goes, oy. And I turn around, and he goes: I'm Lee. I'm Alexander. I'm the person who you don't want to meet.

LYDEN: McQueen's studio was a haven, she says, and they talked about their lives much more than about fashion. Those lives were not always easy. In 2007, Isabella Blow, ill from cancer, committed suicide. In 2010, Guinness was asked to persuade her friend, Alexander McQueen, to do a retrospective show in New York.

GUINNESS: So I called him up, and he said: I think it's a bit soon for a retrospective. Cut to six months later...

LYDEN: Six months later, McQueen committed suicide. He was 40. His show called "Savage Beauty" opened May 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum and drew over a half million visitors.

GUINNESS: And I live right near the Met. And having to see every day in front of it, I kept on just thinking, this is like a bad dream. I mean, this was just not supposed to happen.

LYDEN: McQueen may have been the designer to whom she was closest. He made her a gift of an opera coat of raven feathers, an Edwardian jacket with solid silver life-size eagle epaulets. But she describes herself as a bee among designers who flies from flower to flower. And this world, seeing and admired by so many, says Valerie Steele, is nonetheless a vulnerable world.

STEELE: That's what you're really appreciating when you're talking about the artistry of fashion. And it's not just the genius of one or another designer, but it's also a whole centuries of civilization that went into the craftsmanship that is expressed in the couture by all of the workers who are able to make things. And it's very fragile because that could disappear very easily under the forces of fast fashion. There's no need for it.

LYDEN: As in the sense, there's no need for a piece of music, a painting or a catsuit, a bodysuit worn from neck to toe. The British designer Gareth Pugh made one for her with nails, thousands of them facing out like a porcupine. She'd seen it on the runway in Paris.

GUINNESS: He called me up one day, and he said: Do you want the nails in the bum? And I said: Yes, absolutely. He said: Well, you're going to give yourself a lot of acupuncture.

LYDEN: There's no need for the extraordinary footwear she wears, which she swears are comfortable.

GUINNESS: No way. I wouldn't wear anything that was uncomfortable. Stilettos are uncomfortable, but the heel is actually concealed in the shoes, an optical illusion. But now I can go on point.

LYDEN: And watching her walk on point is a bit like watching a water insect skate along 5th Avenue. Guinness has famously said that she doesn't do event dressing because every day is an event just to be alive, to celebrate and to champion being an individual.

GUINNESS: I mean, people just say, well, why don't you just go wear a pair of jeans or something? And I would say, because I don't like them. You know, I don't tell everybody else what to wear. I'd never dream of it. I mean, frankly, I would never judge someone else.

LYDEN: But of course, the Daphne Guinness show will be judged, and she's ready for it.

GUINNESS: I have to do this because the context of so much of the history of these things has been lost, and there's a whole generation of students and children that haven't seen this. And for them to be able to see how things could be made and to be able to allow their imaginations to run and not to have to feel that they have to wear this or that in order to be accepted.

LYDEN: And then there's this. When she sees these clothes, these works of art, she sees the faces, the hands and hears the voices of those who made them.

GUINNESS: When you put on something that - someone that you really love, it means so much because you think of that person. You think of the process. And when I go to look around that room, it's not about me. It's about lots of pyramids of people. You know, from the makeup to the hair or the laughs that we had, there's masses and masses of different families that one's part of. And that's what's so humbling, because it's not just me. It's a lovely network.

LYDEN: One felt that she did not dress simply for the comfort of the adornment of her body. She was surrounded by her garments and by the delicate and spiritualized machinery of a whole civilization. Marcel Proust never met Guinness, but now, you have a chance. The show "Daphne Guinness" is up until January 7th. Be sure to check out her shoes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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