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Daphne's World

Why We Need Daphne Guinness

by Alex Joseph

Daphne Guinness photo by Roxanne Lowit ’64

Unlike most men , I love getting dressed, but I wouldn’t refer to it as an art form. If I coordinate textures and colors and add the right scarf, I feel clever, but not like de Kooning. So it was with some skepticism that I approached The Museum at FIT’s exhibition about style icon Daphne Guinness.

When I saw the show, which comprises 100 couture pieces collected by Guinness, I realized that a certain paucity of garments might be preventing me from reaching my creative apex. I mean, I just don’t own an Alexander McQueen cat suit dripping with gold and bronze bugle beads or a flowing cape of glistening black feathers. If I did, I’d wear them. I’d feel like a sci-fi superhero, and that’s a nice feeling. I’m not sure I’d want the Gareth Pugh black leather outfit that bristles with thousands of nails. What might a prospective paramour think? Gender distinctions aside, I’d enjoy donning Hogan McLaughlin’s brown leather and rhinestone jumpsuit with its towering shoulders. Sadly, my ability to fit into something that slender ended many seasons (and cheeseburgers) ago.

What kind of person wears such outfits? Hue arranged a short interview with Guinness, and I soon found myself won over by her inimitable presence.

A recent New Yorker profile described her as “a slightly deranged fairy invented by C.S. Lewis,” but my own associations were Patsy Stone, the fantastic flameout played by Joanna Lumley on Absolutely Fabulous, and “Little” Edie Beale from the 1974 documentary Grey Gardens. Fragile, freaky, and disarmingly friendly, Guinness sat holding a crumbling edition of Lord Byron poems. As the interview went on, she leaned more and more into her hand, as if trying to obscure herself. That hand, it should be pointed out, sported engraved silver finger cuffs that evoked the Middle Ages. “I know it sounds bizarre,” she said, “but I always thought I looked pretty normal.”

There’s something touching about this, as if we all had the daredevil sense of balance required to wear ten-inch platform shoes—with air where the heels should be.

Equally touching are her reasons for doing the FIT show. “What’s the point of having lots of things and hoarding them, when they might make somebody happy?”

Her mind is as exceptional as her wardrobe. Reading St. Augustine, she said, she was delighted to discover that his ideas prefigured string theory. Literature has inspired other epiphanies: “I was sure that Manichaeism was part of Zoroastrianism—and it was! I was so happy to find that out the other day.”

The first piece of couture she ever bought, she said, was a blue Chanel suit. She seemed less interested in the outfit than the experience of buying it: “It was so much fun to be involved in the process!” Now she attends the Paris shows to support her designer pals; afterward, she said, they go out for sandwiches. The image of Guinness eating a homely sandwich gave me pause, but she assured me, “Oh, I like simple food. They have the best ham sandwiches in the world in Paris.”

If you go to the exhibition, Guinness says look for the hand-painted ombré silk kimono that Alexander McQueen designed early in his career, at Givenchy. In the late ’90s, she became friends with him, and with his muse, Isabella Blow. Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster McQueen show last spring no doubt noticed that several pieces were contributed by Guinness. Some had belonged to Blow; after her suicide in 2007, Guinness saved her clothing collection from dispersal by buying it—all of it.

It’s worth wondering why the fashion collector is seldom accorded the same respect as the fine art collector. Guinness’s collection reflects a personal, idiosyncratic vision—but so does the highly regarded Barnes Collection of early modern art, to give just one example.

Of course, Albert Barnes didn’t wear his Matisses and van Goghs. Clothes carry the imprint of the body, so they reflect the owner in a way a painting can’t.

One needs substantial funds to own this quality collection, and Guinness doesn’t pretend she’s poor. She’s of the Guinness brewing family, and her ancestors are a storied bunch, including her grandmother, author Nancy Mitford (Love in a Cold Climate). Also, Guinness was married to Greek shipping magnate Spyros Niarchos for 13 years.

These days, fashion both defines her, and renders her unclassifiable. People call her a muse, and there’s something inspiring about how she wears clothes. Photographer Roxanne Lowit ’64 contributed this story: “Maybe ten or 15 years ago, one of the first times I met Daphne, we were running across the Place Vendôme in Paris. We were late for a meeting with Valentino, and you can’t be late for him. Daphne was wearing platform shoes that were even bigger than the ones she wears now, and putting on mascara as she was running over the cobblestones. I thought, ‘She’s going to put her eye out.’”

This dedicated quality comes through best perhaps in a one-minute video tribute to McQueen that screens at the exhibition, and on YouTube. As heavenly choir music soars, Guinness writhes around in a church wearing stupendous garments and a really big snake. It’s everything a fashion video should be—creepy, crazy, beautiful, sad, and momentous.

Vogue editor Hamish Bowles calls her a “fashion proselytizer— on the one hand nurturing young and sometimes even unknown creative talents, on the other setting a standard for established designers to live up to.”

Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of FIT’s museum, puts it best in her book about the show: “The fashion or style icon is a special type of fashion insider, someone who is far more than an ‘early adopter’ or celebrity clothes horse. The fashion icon not only inspires clothes, but actually creates a look that affects the way other people dress and/or think about dressing.”

Allons-y, closet! With Guinness as our guide, we can all be artists of fashion. Or at least we can try.

Daphne Guinness runs at The Museum at FIT through January 7. See Guinness describe her favorite outfit in the show: fitnyc.edu/hue

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