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Daphne Guinness: An Icon On Fashion's Cutting Edge

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.

Daphne Guinness is the daughter of brewery heir Jonathan Guinness.
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
Getty Images
Daphne Guinness is the daughter of brewery heir Jonathan Guinness.

"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.

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