The icon: Daphne Guinness

As Daphne Guinness’s exhibition – which featured 100 garments from her personal wardrobe – at The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) came to an end  and on the occasion of her book – an extended interview with the Fashion Historian and MFIT’s Director and Chief Curator, Valerie Steele – I could not help but wonder: is she anything more than impressive clothes?

by Christina Roussou

Because of her glamorous contacts, she attends almost every launch, fashion show and party worldwide. There is something about her that makes her stand out from other celebrities, but what is it that makes Daphne Guinness special? No one really knows exactly what she does, but everyone knows who she is. And it is not just her look – even though her blonde and black hair is her trademark.

Born in 1967, Daphne is the daughter of the brewery heir Jonathan Guinness and the French artist and muse to Man Ray and Dali, Suzanne Lisney. She was brought up in England and Ireland, holidaying every summer in Spain, in Cadaqués, a Catalan fishing village loved by the art world. The painter Salvador Dalí, the photographer Man Ray and the artists Marcel Duchamp and Richard Hamilton were regular guests. As a child, though, she had no perception of who they were. “I just thought Man Ray was our neighbour”, she has said.

She is described as a designer, editor, model, muse, stylist, writer and filmmaker. She studied Art at the Slade, became obsessed with classical music – nearly became an opera singer – and dealt with writing. But Guinness was not that interested in school, she left home early, mostly because she fell in love with Spyros Niarchos, son of the Greek, über-rich shipping magnate, Stavros Niarchos. “I married at 19. It was madness, but that is love. I was stubborn and very much in love and I could not see any reason not to marry”.

After her marriage, came what friends and family call the “Fabergé-egg years”. She was surrounded by immense wealth having no contact with the outside world. “It is true; I did not get out very much. We were either travelling or I was being a mother”. She, Niarchos and their three children, Nicolas, Alexis and Ines travelled the world – it was St-Tropez one day, New York or Paris the next – accompanied by bodyguards everywhere they went. The upshot was that she did not really keep in touch with anyone. In fact, by the time she and Niarchos separated in 1999, she had not seen her friends and family for 15 years. “Suddenly I had to start all over again and it was very frightening”. There was, however, a salvation. “At that time, I found that fashion became an extension of myself”. She started to put clothes together in her own eclectic way, when she was still with Niarchos, and gathered a vast collection of designer pieces.

Until the divorce she never had a job or earned her own money. “I was not even that well educated. I love books – I read obsessively – classical music and politics. In fact, I love everything but sport”. Still it is almost impossible to say exactly what Guinness actually does. She herself says she does “ideas”. “I think of things and then I tell my friends and they create them. I thought of these shoes and now my friend makes them”. After her divorce, she started going to fashion shows and parties and she was finally in a world where she could express herself in clothes, and her outfits were praised. French philosopher and rumoured former love of her, Bernard-Henri Lévy, best summed it up: “She is no longer a person, she has become a concept”.

Unlike the popular perception, she is not a muse to anyone. “I am not associated with any designer; I am more like a bee that flies from flower to flower”. Although she would be perfectly happy to be collaborating with a designer – like Amanda Harlech with Karl Lagerfeld (who wouldn’t be?) – but that no one has ever asked her. However, many designers admire her: Valentino said of her, “Daphne amazes me all the time. When I think she has reached the best, she comes up with something better”. Designer and film director Tom Ford, speaking of her: “She is one of the – if not the – most stylish women living”.

Daphne Guinness is certainly quite extraordinary-looking: extremely tiny, with thin little legs always balancing on skyscraper heels. Nothing about her is plain. She is an exotic creature, living in the fashionable bohemian world where everyone is creating something all the time. In Daphne Guinness land, people do wear black leather high-heeled platform boots on an average day. She is inspired by Dandies, she is influenced by men’s clothes and she loves armor. Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Valentino, Azzedine Alaia, and the late Alexander McQueen are among the many great fashion designers whose spectacular garments form part of her personal collection of haute couture – which is all organized on a computer database (!). But Guinness is more than a great couture client; because of her fearless personal style she is an inspiration to designers. Valerie Steele says “Daphne is far from being just a consumer. She collects fashion the way one would collect art or stamps from the point of view of a connoisseur who knows the important things in fashion”.

She is acquainted with numerous photographers, including David LaChapelle and Steven Klein, and she finds designers “fascinating”. She was also close friends with the famously eccentric fashion stylist, Isabella Blow, who committed suicide in 2007. Isabella had said that she found a soulmate in Guinness at a party, because she was wearing a hat shaped like a cathedral. As good friends they used to help each other on fashion shoots. “I loved her. I miss her every day. I cannot believe she is not here. She was so generous and so very funny”. Guinness was also friends with Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, and even knew Andy Warhol; “My sister Catherine worked for him. He was very shy”.

In 2008 she auctioned 1,000 designer items bought during her marriage. She raised $158,000 for Womankind, a charity that deals with the political and domestic abuse of women worldwide. “I wanted to sell those dresses. They represented a part of my life that I am not proud of. And I just thought that if I could use them to make other people happy it might readdress the nightmare”. She has told that her life is like slipping on banana skins. “You cannot be objective about your life, can you? Life is full of banana skins. You slip, you carry on. I have to look forward, not back. There lies madness”.

Daphne Guinness is undoubtedly special. Everything about her is memorable: from her platinum-and-black striped hair to her to-die-for couture collection and amazing diamond jewelry, Daphne Guinness embodies the ethereal, personal style of a true fashion icon. She is renowned for the way she uses fashion to transform herself. As her friend, the art historian John Richardson puts it: “She is the object of her own creativity. Her persona is her own masterpiece”.

Guinness in her Fashion Fetish Film for
accompanied by Guinness’ own singing. The film was inspired by the
1962 Jules Dassin film, Phaedra, starring Melina Mercouri.