Couture Queen

09.19.11

Daphne Guinness’s ‘Tremendous Style’

The fashion icon, whose eccentric design sense has a legion of admirers—including Lady Gaga—has a movie in the works and will now get a show of her own at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Jacob Bernstein reports.

In an age where nearly everyone seems to be branding themselves, it’s not so unusual for a woman who appears frequently on the party pages to try and use that as a launching pad for bigger and better things. But when Daphne Guinness collaborated this year on a diamond-encrusted golden glove with her friend, the jeweler Shaun Leane—the piece is currently being sold for $1.76 million, according to WWD—she nevertheless found a particularly novel way to promote it. She held a party at a friend’s London townhouse, put on an Alexander McQueen catsuit and a very stylish veil, and lay in a coffin-like thing for three hours, playing dead, with the glove on her hand for everyone to see.

“I came up with that idea because I actually hate going to parties, and I thought, ‘How on earth am I going to show this?’” Guinness says on a recent overcast day, sitting in her enormous New York City apartment on Fifth Avenue. “And then a week before the party I thought, ‘I’ll just be dead.’ I was just lying there doing my TM [transcendental meditation]. It was great.”

Too bad Guinness hasn’t had much time to meditate since then.

She produced and starred in an experimental movie about Jean Seberg, an actress whose mysterious suicide in 1979 has been a source of debate for the past 32 years; there's an endless stream of designers with whom she’s collaborating on one thing or another; and now, she’s got an exhibit of her wildly eccentric clothing collection that’s taking place at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum in Chelsea.

Why people should care about the wardrobe of a transcontinental brewery heiress is an easy question to ask at a time when the world is on the brink, but for those who care about fashion, Guinness has ascended to royal heights. Comme Des Garcons recently tapped her to do a fragrance. Valentino and Tom Ford clamor to have her wearing their clothes. Steven Klein shot her in couture for a spread in Italian Vogue that is among the magazine’s most buzzed-about photo shoots in recent years. The pop star Lady Gaga, with her sky-high platform shoes and mop of blond hair with a thick streak of black running through it, seems to be virtually pillaging Guinness’s closet for ideas.

Says Hamish Bowles, the European editor at large of Vogue: “Daphne embodies so much of what draws designers to design and what excites and ignites them. She makes choices with a very strong and very discriminating personal aesthetic. She has tremendous style.”

For the record, Guinness herself is a little befuddled by all the attention she’s receiving, her clothes being something she seems to think a lot about, but doesn’t really like to discuss.

Currently, she’s sitting in her living room, surrounded by thousands of books written by everyone from Spinoza to Fitzgerald. Artwork from Damien Hirst and photographs by Nobuyoshi Araki, Bert Stern, and David LaChapelle line the walls.

Though she doesn’t deny loving clothes, she abhors trends, opting instead to snap up wares that have a certain gothic extremity and make her look like a comic-book figurine come to life. Most frequently, Guinness is photographed in designs by Alexander McQueen (one of her best friends until his suicide in 2010), Azzedine Alaia, or L'Wren Scott, all of whom take inspiration from dominatrixes. But there’s nothing tarty or suggestive about her wardrobe. If she is sexy (and men clearly find her sexy; she’s been linked both to Andre Balazs and Bernard-Henri Lévy), it’s more in the vein of Marlene Dietrich or Grace Jones than Britney Spears or Beyoncé.

Really, there’s no obvious reference point from which she draws her inspiration. “It’s all unconscious,” she says, drinking a cup of tea and a glass filled with Red Bull, almost simultaneously. “It depends on the book I’m reading. It’s just a never-ending reorganizing of the jigsaw puzzle, and the hair is a series of dire mistakes.”

Today, she’s barefoot in an ensemble that includes a jet-black tailcoat with a crisp white shirt underneath and tiny black shorts that barely reach her upper thighs; a pair of black pantyhose cover up her sample-size legs.

Guinness is aware that the biggest pop star on the planet seems to view her as a reference point (“I’ve been told that,” Guinness says of Gaga), but she isn’t about to throw a rock her way. “Human beings all mimic each other. I’m probably mimicking someone else, too,” Guinness shrugs.

What troubles her more is that so few people seem to take risks at all with their clothes anymore—evidence to Guinness of an increasing “blandness that’s spread across the world.”

Partly, she thinks, this has been caused by the army of stylists who now populate Hollywood. “People stopped dressing themselves, they let other people do it for them, or they get paid to wear things down a red carpet.” (For Guinness, this is an absolute horror. “No way,” she says, when asked if any of the outfits on display at FIT were things she was paid to wear. “No f--king way. That would be terrible. Then it wouldn’t be real, and everything I’m telling you now would be a complete lie. I wear it if it’s [designed by] a friend.”)

Guinness is also perturbed by a music business that is less and less about changing the world. “There used to be movements, and then that sort of died after the New Romantics and grunge,” she continues.

Like Fran Lebowitz, Guinness believes that the AIDS crisis had a disastrous effect on creativity, shifting power away from artists and designers and putting it primarily in the hands of corporate suits. “The coolest people died. The most adventurous people died.”

There’s nothing tarty or suggestive about her wardrobe. If she is sexy, it’s more in the vein of Marlene Dietrich or Grace Jones than Britney Spears or Beyoncé.

If Guinness has a bleak view of the fashion industry, it’s partly because she sees the suicides of two close friends as being related to this. In 2007, Isabella Blow, a British fashion editor with a penchant for wearing lobsters on her head, committed suicide. “Things stopped making sense to her,” Guinness says. Two years later, McQueen (who’d been discovered by Blow) followed suit.

Consequently, the attention Guinness is receiving is a little bittersweet. “A lot of my friends died, and we were a gang. I’ve become more visible since they disappeared. I’ve been more exposed.” And it’s somewhat confusing, because “I don’t think I’ve changed.”

Thankfully, she sees some “hope on the horizon.” For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to her, she recently began receiving letters and handmade objets from a 7-year-old girl who’s a fan of hers. And there’s a young designer named Hogan McLaughlin whose clothes Guinness is simply mad about.

“I’m hopeful for the future, I really am,” she says. “I see these kids, and I think maybe things are getting back to some sort of balance. There may be that Woodstock moment again. It doesn’t take much. The trouble is, things get ruined by money. Things get overcommercialized too quickly.”

So she tries to change this, one outfit at a time.