Daphne Guinness is skyping from her New York apartment. Her hair is scraped back architecturally and she’s wearing a black silk Chinese robe, its exquisite midnight blue embroidery catching the dull lens of the webcam sporadically. Two days ago saw a screening of her film, The Legend of Lady White Snake.
“I improvised a lot of Shakespeare in it – there’s not a script or anything,” she begins. “It was basically a few shoots that turned into a project. The first for The Sunday Times – I was wearing this cape that Lee [Alexander McQueen] made me, like the one here that was at FIT [New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology],” she says gesturing casually to a piece from her collection exhibit. “We were at the Angel Orensanz synagogue, which was the only place he ever did a show in New York, having problems getting the wind blowing into the material. Suddenly it just went wssssshhhhhhttt! It was almost a year to the day he died. It was a strange moment that got to me. I then got a friend involved, Hogan McLaughlin, who’s a talented ballet dancer. He had done some drawings, somewhere between Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Gorey called The Homicidal Heiress.” After disappearing off screen, Guinness arrives back eager to show and tell. “Look at this: arsenic in Armani,” she laughs. “The detail is brilliant and it’s all in ballpoint pen. I met him through Twitter funnily enough.”
As we go to press, @TheRealDaphne has 36,955 followers. She joined as part of a charity initiative and caught the bug, finding that despite its ability to be cultural tinnitus, it’s a brilliant medium for communication if you’re able to get under the skin of it. “I made ten hardcore friends,” she explains on the decision to keep it going. “Sometimes my son gets on it and wreaks havoc but I’ve learned to be careful about what I say as people take it so literally. You can say something so flippantly or ironically but it doesn’t come across like that.” If your friend Sue from down the road says on her Twitter that she’s had a crap day and is over it all, you’d probably realise she’s not clenching the knife. But should Guinness do it, it’s taken – wrongly – with heavy intent.
The first time Guinness arrived in New York was 1985. Her sister Catherine, a friend of Warhol, had been at Interview for ten years, until 1981 and Daphne had inherited all her Big Apple friends. “SoHo was full of artists, you had Jerry’s Diner instead of Prada, there was no Mercer hotel,” she reflects in a stream of consciousness. “There was one Comme des Garçons store and that was it. And the Meatpacking district was just that: the Meatpacking district. There was literally blood on the pavement, the sidewalk is so high there because it was designed to accommodate unloading trucks. My son did a very interesting flowchart of how commerce follows art – the creatives are all in Brooklyn now or Williamsburg. One thing that hasn’t changed here is Lexington, it’s still pretty much the same.”
Guinness has stuck to what she’s known throughout. “I’ve always lived on the Upper East Side which I quite like because of the park,” she explains. “I know it’s deeply Brownie-ish of me but I don’t want to be in the middle of everything. I don’t want to be cool Downtown and living in the middle of a nightclub! Why would I? You can get in a taxi for that…”
Let’s dispel any tabloid attempts to portray Guinness as Jimmy Page in Chanel couture. She isn’t throwing TV’s out of windows because she doesn’t even watch it. What keeps her awake until the small hours? Painting and plotting, conjuring up new multidisciplinary projects, whether in NY or her other touchstones, London and Paris.
“Everything seems to have been one long blur of work for such a long time,” she says honestly. “Things are coming out now that I don’t even remember doing – I’m thinking, ‘shit, is there something else coming after that I’m going to have to show up to?’ It’s great doing a project, the difficulty is turning up to the launch of it.”
Something else difficult? Getting changed in the window at Barney’s to attend the Met’s 2011 McQueen retrospective. “That came about through me making a joke to my friend Dennis [Freedman, Barneys’ creative director],” Guinness explains. “But everyone had taken it seriously. I then started to panic, thinking ‘what the fuck am I going to do?!’ I had to have a stiff drink and I veiled my head: it had to be solely about Lee’s art and not my face, so I was bound-up like a mummy. I changed from Lee’s catsuit behind a screen into a Sarah Burton dress and came out in that. I learnt that being creative in front of business people is very dangerous – because often they’ll take you up on it.”
An inspiring thing about Daphne is her unflinching faith in the art – and transformative power – of dress. She has encyclopaedic knowledge of clothes but less so of designers. She doesn’t check every collection, attending only shows of her friends, students or fledgling names because she knows these are the things that matter, what she has faith in. Anything else is just pollution. Her wardrobe too is proof of purity: rails full of clothes in the key food groups such as sequinned, metallics, military, red, white and black.
“White shirts too,” she squeals. “With Alexander I used to say I want to have the simplest dress possible and [makes scissor noises] he would do it in five minutes. I wear them all the time – varying shades of grey and black with different accessories. And I love Chinese robes, like I’m wearing right now.” Guinness again gestures off camera, this time to a skirt used in her latest film. It is made out of foil survival blankets. “Isn’t that really cool? Because it works into shape, all waves like a silver sea.” She has done much to elevate the art of performance, using garments with the intonation a novelist would words, all part of a deeper narrative or context.
“I don’t remember ‘getting into’ clothes,” she wracks. “But I do remember wearing my brother’s flared trousers and they wouldn’t fit into my gumboots. I wanted drainpipes,” she laughs. “So I’d wind them round and round my legs. There was a lot of self-expression going on where I spent my summers, Cadaqués in Spain, with my Dad wearing kaftans, though it was in school I really accelerated. We were allowed to wear home shoes in our first year, so I’d get the pointiest ones possible, with my tights as ripped as possible, the most graffiti on everything and the hole-iest cardigan. A lot of kids had ponies and would do pony club and had very efficient parents – I became quite introverted, got into music and art. I guess that’s when I started using clothes as a form of defence, I wanted to look tougher as I was a bit small. In order to stay alive in those schools you had to look a bit mean. If you can get through an English boarding school you can cope with just about anything,” she deadpans.
“I loved the symbolism too of religious costumes and the detail of army uniforms, the reds, blues, Prussian, English. I was the youngest child and had to make a lot of stuff up in my head because in Spain we were at the top of a mountain and I wasn’t allowed to leave until I was well in my teens. It was really nice but there was nothing to stimulate, so I read a lot of books, especially science fiction. I made catapults and toys with elastic bands. Lunch was around six and dinner at midnight, so when I went back to school it was like having jet lag!”
In England, Guinness’ grandfather’s house was in Wiltshire and her father’s house in Leicestershire. “I’d be on my own in the woods on my bike or climbing haystacks, people shouting at me to get off them. It’s good to be bored actually, you start imagining stuff.”
She has made up for that boredom since, as a 21st century renaissance woman, having worked designing, writing, producing, filmmaking, painting and creating perfumes, cosmetics and more, Guinness often shadowing the hazy areas in between, where medias dissolve.
“You can almost change consciousness with images,” she introduces, becoming animated. “I’m thinking about hijacking more commercial things to do happenings – chances are a few people will be affected. We have to move things forward, be more artistic in our approach. We’re the only species on earth that can dress ourselves – you can take in a t-shirt and make it fit really well no matter where it’s from. And not everything has to be expensive – I take gaffer tape round in my bag because I hate branding so much. If I’m wearing headphones I’ll gaffer tape over the logo. With Mnemosyne [a film produced by Guinness about the experience of perfume] that was kind of an anti-ad – and I want to do more of that. If a product is good or innovative it should speak for itself.”
“Four blocks from FIT there’s this amazing place with the latest materials that they use in the air industry, car industry, refrigeration… All the newest polymers,” she segues. “I took this young designer who wanted to make heel-less shoes – they’re everywhere – and then he told me he had a background in engineering. You know I’ve been trying to find an engineer for six years, even asking my son to check round university?! The last thing we need is another shoe brand or more half-sizes: I’m much more interested to see technologies being crossed. Why are people still getting blisters? Why can’t we swim in these things? Why can’t we hover in them? Don’t think trends, think usefulness.”
Guinness got divorced in 1999 but “still thought it was 1987 because I’d been in an ice block. It wasn’t. AIDS had decimated so much and that’s when the corporate mind moved in on many things. Creatives either died or lost their support system. The 90s was that, really. Now we’re a generation beyond and I’m all about hope for the future. The problem is young people don’t have the memory of when clothing was attached to politics or a movement or meant something more. They inhabit looks, like a Rolodex, everything is like shuffle on an iPod. That’s why I want to take these amazing clothes back to the students – they can examine them and pore over them and just feel that. I’m lucky enough to have all this stuff but what does it mean otherwise? It has to be about flow of information. There’s a hunger for it – I’ve spoken to so many youngsters and you can feel they want to express themselves and make a mark. The key audience now are aged two to twenty-two.”
You can’t say she’s not 4Real. Guinness will sell 100 pieces of her wardrobe at Christie’s in June, raising money so that her friend Isabella Blow’s archive can be shown at Central Saint Martins in 2013. “A lot of people come up to me and ask why London didn’t have the McQueen exhibit, but I don’t know either: I’m not a PR, I’m just Lee’s friend,” she says miffed. “The arts in England are so underfunded which is why I’m doing this. I want to introduce some sort of a mental health education aspect too – today people are given pills so easily but they don’t make them better. We’re setting up The Isabella Blow Foundation so that her clothes are safe for the future. It’s about celebration and education though of course there is a lot of history personally too.” The armour retracts: for all their vision, McQueen and Blow were Guinness’ friends. It’s something she’s constantly reminded by whilst maintaining the professionalism of a custodian.
The core of Daphne Guinness is passion and a hedonistic appreciation for the sublime – because it holds aspirations for living. Not lifestyle, but living. There’s not much more awe-inspiring than that. There is of course a thriving culture at the moment of being intimidated by anything extreme. She wants you to think about the reality – isn’t the beige, the nondescript, much more harmful?
“I found some really good chainmail the other day,” she says excitedly (knowing we’ll appreciate it). After running off once again and returning, Daphne throws it on in front of the webcam. “It was nailed onto the wall in the fabric place,” she says nonchalantly “I wear it as a scarf.”
“The biggest thing is that disciplines need to be crossed – art should be taught with physics,” she summarises. No one thinks laterally anymore, you’re either in this world or that. If you mix the two, you get something future forward. You know the tech polymer heaven place I was telling you about that’s four blocks from FIT? All the students are hanging out there now…”
TEXT DEAN MAYO DAVIES
PHOTOGRAPHY MILES ALDRIDGE
FASHION PHOEBE ARNOLD
PONYSTEP 03, SPRING/SUMMER 2012