Daphne Guinness is the undisputed queen of haute couture. Known for her vast collection of avant-garde fashion, in particular the dizzying array of pieces she acquired from her close friends Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow, as well as New-Gen designers, her wardrobe is unsurpassed. Now the muse, model and musician is being feted with a new exhibition at SHOWstudio, which brings together her private collection with the art of illustration. Here, in our cover interview, Daphne opens up on everything from her surreal childhood growing up next door to Salvador Dali to her friendship with David Bowie.
When Daphne Guinness walks into a room, you notice. It’s hard not to. The muse-model-musician demands attention, from the platinum-streaked chignon piled high atop her head right down to the vertiginous Noritaka Tatehana heel-less platform shoes on her feet. Little wonder her inimitable style is being celebrated in an exhibition at SHOWstudio, the award-winning fashion website founded and directed by visionary photographer Nick Knight, which brings her incredible private collection of haute couture together with the art of illustration.
The exhibition, at the SHOWstudio gallery space on Ebury Street in Belgravia, features works by 12 contemporary artists reimagining multiple versions of Guinness on the set of her music video, directed by Knight, for new single Hip Neck Spine from her forthcoming fourth studio album Sleep. It’s an album which, Guinness says, she’s “so happy with. It’s been a very challenging album in lots of respects. In a way it’s classical, but also very futuristic. It covers pretty much every genre.” The video sees her wear key couture garments from her extensive archive, each look chosen by Guinness and the fashion critic and collector Alexander Fury. On the SHOWstudio website, a fascinating digital essay sees Fury unpick each of these key outfits.
“I have worked with both Daphne and Alexander for the last 15 years, which meant I knew what a huge fan and how knowledgeable Alexander is of Daphne’s fashion archive,” Knight tells The Glossary. “Only someone that has such an encyclopaedic knowledge of fashion would be able and also be trusted by Daphne to look through her entire collection.” Together, the SHOWstudio exhibition, Fury’s video essay and the music video are a tantalising glimpse into Daphne’s glorious couture-filled life.
This many-sided approach suits Guinness. A multi-hyphenate in the truest sense of the word, she’s turned her hand at everything from philanthropy and film – producing and appearing in Oscar-nominated art films such as Sean Ellis’s Cashback in 2004 – to putting out albums and curating exhibitions. She’s also made multiple forays into the world of design, bringing out her own line of jewellery, a makeup collaboration with Mac and fragrance – her heady unisex scent Daphne created in 2009, made in collaboration with Comme des Garçons, is available on her website. But there’s one common thread that runs through all her endeavours: her love of fashion.
“I don’t approach fashion; fashion approaches me,” Guinness once said. The granddaughter of Diana Mitford, Guinness had an unconventional upbringing, flitting between homes in London and Ireland, as well as a monastery at the top of a hill in Cadaqués, Spain, where there was no electricity or running water and Guinness’s bed was behind the altar. Summers here were spent at Salvador Dali’s nearby villa, where he kept lobsters in a swimming pool; Man Ray was also a friend. “I was essentially a child of surrealism, because that’s what I grew up with,” explains Guinness.
In 1987, when she was 19, she married the Greek shipping heir Spyros Niarchos and the couple went on to have three children. It was after their divorce in 1999 that she really began to emerge onto the London fashion scene, getting swept up in the avant-garde movement of the moment. She quickly made a name for herself with her statement-making, rule-breaking looks, from wearing a full alien-esque ensemble from Alexander McQueen’s final Plato’s Atlantis show – complete with his infamous armadillo heels – to being swathed in a sequined dress from the latest Chanel couture collection, teamed with a face-obscuring veil and fantastical headpiece, usually by her great friend Philip Treacy.
Guinness describes fashion as a form of conversation with the past and the future. “Fashion isn’t always about trends. It’s representative of political history, too, and you can see defining, transformative moments over the years that were due either to revolutions or changes in politics.” She has confessed to having a deep fascination for everything to do with cloth, weave and pigment – and she was the first person to ever ask to meet the seamstresses at the Chanel atelier. “They’re just incredible people and they work so hard; they have been learning their craft for centuries. It’s such a beautiful thing… Those are the people that I really respect.”
She formed strong friendships with the fashion elite, most notably Isabella Blow, Alexander McQueen and Karl Lagerfeld, working as a muse for the latter two. Fellow Lagerfeld muse Amanda Harlech said Karl was continually inspired by Daphne, while she met McQueen by chance when he spotted her on the street wearing a jacket he had designed and introduced himself. “That period of fashion, with Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow, was so interesting, and being in it, one thought it was going to go on forever. I really did – it was so much fun and so brilliant; I wish I had bought more.” She remains an avid collector of McQueen’s work; following Isabella Blow’s death in 2007 Guinness purchased her entire private collection, which featured many McQueen masterpieces. “I treat clothing or a piece of jewellery like it was a piece of art,” she once quipped.
Not content with merely watching from the fashion sidelines, Guinness has also worked with numerous top designers on creations of her own. Perhaps the most notable of those is the dazzling white-gold “Contra Mundum” glove she made with McQueen and jewellery designer Shaun Leane in 2011. The bespoke piece, which translated from Latin means ‘against the world’, took over four years, 21 fittings and 4,290 diamonds to create. McQueen was planning to design a dress for the glove, but died before being able to bring his vision to life; after his death, the glove took on new meaning for Guinness. “I thought, everything is getting so dark, so let’s try to make something good out of this,” she has since explained. “The glove became about carrying on. It was built out of a lot of love.”
Guinness has also curated numerous fashion exhibitions, including a show featuring her own personal wardrobe at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in 2011, where highlights included Chanel couture gowns, McQueen platforms and Azzedine Alaïa evening dresses, as well as pieces by the likes of Gareth Pugh, Nina Ricci and John Galliano. She was also instrumental in bringing to life the Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! Exhibition at Somerset House in 2014, where she donated over 100 pieces from Blow’s archive to go on display. “We shared a love of creativity; neither of us was interested in the commercial aspect of the fashion industry,” Guinness has said of her relationship with Blow. “We shared a strong sense of our style; we both knew what we liked.”
Another passion is music. Guinness first started recording her own music after her brother Jasper died of cancer in 2011, and she has described the process as her “reaction to grief”. Her debut album, Optimist in Black, came out in 2016 and was made on the advice of her great friend, David Bowie, who was deeply involved in the process and brought his legendary producer, Tony Visconti, on board to make it. “Bowie was the godfather of the first album,” says Guinness. “I often think, ‘What would Bowie do?’ because he was always full of good advice. And he was so unbelievably supportive and generous with his time.”
Her new album Sleep, recorded in the world-famous Abbey Road Studios, is her most ambitious and autobiographical work to date. Hip Neck Spine, an art-pop track that fuses disco and ‘80s electronica references, features samples made by the sound of Guinness’ own hip, neck and spine recorded during a chiropractic session. When asked what the next 25 years have in store, Guinness’s answer is suitably enigmatic. “I’d like to write classical music,” she says. “And also, film scores and films. A kind of Python-esque view of life in general, done episodically. I can see it but I have no idea how to make that happen. But I will definitely be in the arts somehow.”