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Daphne Guinness, Undressed


“What was it like to go through Daphne Guinness’ closet?” someone asked Valerie Steele at the Museum at FIT Friday morning, minutes before Daphne Guinness, the exhibit, opened its doors.

“Closets—not closet,” Steele, who curated the exhibit, corrected. “It truly was every girl’s dream.” Standing next to Steele was Guinness herself, immaculately dressed in one of her signature more-is-more outfits, complete with heel-less black claw shoes. The duo spent months sifting through Guinness’ extensive collection of one-of-kind McQueen, Givenchy, and Rick Owens pieces in London and New York, eventually narrowing it down to 100 items for display. What stands out about Guinness, through the exhibit, and conversation, is her profound appreciation for the art of fashion that extends far beyond most peoples’, fashion insiders included. For Guinness, every intricate stitch and button detail provides a visual fixation, a tool for performance art (“sometimes it’s just the only way to deal with things”), and, at times, a shield of sorts.

“I used to use [fashion] as a defense, in a way,” Guinness tells the audience. “It was a protective tool, and now it’s not.” Guinness and Steele sat down with to talk about how they managed to work through Guinness’ collection of over 2,500 garments, why chic is no longer an armor, and what they learned through the process.

How did you pick out the pieces for the exhibit? It must have been pretty tough to narrow it down.
VS: Daphne is so organized, she has a computer database on all of the clothes. First thing we did, I went through and circled all the ones we wanted and Daphne went through that list. Then, we kept looking in the closets in New York, her apartment in London, and finding more things. Just a week and a half ago, Daphne found in a box in London—it was a McQueen for Givenchy cape that had been lost and she called me to put it in the show, so we did.
DG: It’s the only organized thing I did in the last three years. Yes, the cape had been split apart from the dress that went with it.

Daphne, it must have been tough to part with some of these pieces, right?
DG: I got Lee [McQueen] to make the black cape in that transparent material and I was like, “Oh, I really love it, I don’t know if I can part with it for the exhibit.” Then I thought, “OK, I signed up for this and it’s got to mean something here, so I will include it.” Also, it was really important for me to be here and be a part of putting all of this together. You can’t style it like it was on the runway because that was the artist’s vision, but it’s not necessarily how I would do it. Or, how I would wear it on a different day, in fact.
VS: At one point, Daphne even asked me, “Do I style it like I would now or at that time when I got it?” I told her to style it like she would now. We thought it would take days and days to style it, but it was really fast.

Daphne, when you look through it today, do you already want to change how it’s styled in the exhibit?
DG: No, I’m really comfortable and happy with it. It all makes sense now and really puts it into context. Valerie has done a great job of putting it into the context of why I have certain things. For example, David LaChapelle, he was always the best at lending things. Also, he gave me a couple of pieces, which no one ever does, ever. I have never been given anything in my life actually.

DG: Yeah, really. It’s so unfair—no, you know what’s good about it? I think that’s why I had close relationships with these people; it’s because I wasn’t trying to use them. It was an equal thing. They knew I was in it for the right reasons and I knew they were in it for the right reasons. And, when you are a designer, a lot of these people don’t have any money. People think because they have a name that they have money, but they don’t. They put their heart and soul into it. They really do. A lot of people feel entitled about it and like they don’t have to give back. I find that so disrespectful to someone’s art, especially knowing how many hours of work they have put into it.

What do you want people to learn about you from this exhibit?
DG: It’s not about me. It’s about a lot of collaborations and all of the work that went into those various things. Fashion, for me, is very personal and I like to meet the people that actually make these clothes. A lot of people just order things and don’t bother to care. It’s difficult to make friends with a machine.
VS: That was one of the cutest things that Daphne’s dad said when I interviewed him. He followed her once to a couture house and he said, “She knew all the seamstresses there and they all knew her.” He was so surprised.
DG: There is obviously a lot of talk about McQueen, but there’s a lot of talent out there. I think there will be, hopefully, a kind of new…that’s what I hope for this. It’s to share it.

The other night you said something interesting to me. You said you aren’t in the fashion industry, but you are so involved in it—why don’t you want to be in the industry?
DG: In fashion, there are so many gangs, if you identify too much with one, you get caught—I would lose my freedom. I don’t know why I haven’t ever been part of the industry, but I just haven’t. You can be chewed up. There are a lot of people that are fascinated by it, but it doesn’t really lead anywhere.

It must have been really interesting going through your life in clothes. What did you learn from it?
DG: Seeing it all together, the films, the clothes, and the pictures, it unifies it. It gives everything a meaning and unifies it into a whole. Now I know why I was missing in action for the past several years. Before that, I had done all these projects and collaborations and they were all over the place, but now it all makes sense—this is such a gift.
VS: She was such a trooper. When we did the shoot, she came in for hours and hours, and the photographers asked her to do things over and over and whatever it took, she did it.
DG: That’s the thing, I am used to extreme things like that. I want it to be right for the people I am working with. You know when you’ve got it or you haven’t, and there’s that moment when you get that…shiver when it’s right, and that’s great.

Photos: René Habermacher (Guinness); Courtesy of The Museum at FIT (clothes)



  1. CindyK says:

    Thanks for this great article. I wish I was closer to see the exhibit. Daphne is such an inspiration.

  2. littleprince says:

    Great exhibition…