Daphne on Display

You have a handful of days left to catch closet exhibitionist Daphne Guinness, a fraction of whose wardrobe is on display at The Museum at FIT in New York. The exhibition of clothes literally out of the London and New York closets of Ms. Guinness, ends January 7th. It is not to be missed.

I was simply without breath the whole time I was inside the Museum, back in November when I was in New York to attend the Fashion Icons and Insiders Symposium, also put on by FIT.

Part of the two-day schedule included a chat with Guinness and Dr. Valerie Steele, the Museum at FIT’s director and chief curator. The two women co-curated the show.

Daphne Guinness and Valerie Steele at the opening of the Daphne Guinness Exhibit at the Museum at FIT on September 15, 2011 on Exshoesme.com
The co-curators at the show’s opening, in September. {Photo by Jimi Celeste.}

Included here are some of my notes from the talk, as well as my thoughts on the exhibition. I went through it at least a half-dozen times before leaving the city – etching each piece in my visual memory – and storing the emotions each creation stirred within me.

“It’s been quite a journey,” said Guinness, speaking to the room of fashion insiders attending the Symposium. When asked by Steele about hosting a possible exhibition two years ago, while attending a Couture Council luncheon, Guinness initially said no to the idea. Steele asked her to “call Lee” to get his take on things. McQueen told Guinness it was too soon for a retrospective.

“Six months later, he was gone,” Guinness told those of us in the room, reflecting upon the words as she spoke.

McQueen and Guinness were dear friends and the late designer gave her many pieces straight off of his runway – show clothes that mere mortals wouldn’t be able to carry. Included in this presentation of pristine couture dreams, are also bespoke pieces that Lee made for Guinness or those that didn’t make it into one of his shows – many have never been seen publicly before. The show is worth it for the McQueen content, alone.

I’ve read about the story of their meeting elsewhere, but it was special to hear Guinness tell it in her own words, a few feet away from me.

Isabella Blow, a friend of Daphne’s, who had been nurturing McQueen’s talent, had wanted her two friends to meet each other, for some time. Guinness said no to that many times, too. Seeing her in person, one can see how shy and private she truly is, uncomfortable amongst strangers hanging on her every word, yet she handled it with grace. There is a quiet grace about her, for certain, much quieter than her clothes. Yet those clothes don’t wear her – a mysterious allure, indeed. But, I digress.

She was in Leicester Square in London, wearing the kimono dress from his Givenchy collection when Lee spotted her.

Daphne Guinness speaking about meeting Alexander McQueen at the Fashion Icons and Insiders Symposium at FIT in November, 2011 on Exshoesme.com. Photo by Jyotika Malhotra.
Speaking of McQueen. {Photo by Jyotika Malhotra.}

“I don’t save things for best,” she explained, as an aside.

“And Lee says – ‘I’m the person you don’t want to meet!’ – we went to the pub after that.”

There you have it – a moment in fashion history.

Along with McQueen, many of the greats were represented in the collection of clothes chosen for display. However, this wasn’t grouped by designer, or even chronologically, but instead by a series of six themes that recur in Guinness’s style story.

Armor is something we often see Guinness donning whether strutting down the streets of SoHo or lounging on a piano at Bryan Ferry’s Olympia fête.

Daphne Guinness at the Bryan Ferry Olympia Launch Dinner at Dean Street Townhouse in October 2010 on Exshoesme.com
Daphne Guinness at the Bryan Ferry Olympia Launch Dinner at Dean Street Townhouse in October, 2010. {Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images Europe.}

Armor was a consistent theme in the work of Alexander McQueen and not surprisingly, many of the McQueen pieces she owns make an appearance here. These include a black leather butterfly vest, a bra and harness and a paillette coat dress.

“I think it’s very beautiful to be able to cover yourself in metal.

I love the colour and the way it reflects.

But it is also protection.”

– Daphne Guinness

In describing an outfit and how she would have styled it, Guinness spoke of the McQueen boots she let go of: “In order for something to mean something, you have to part with things that you love.” In an act of fashion serendipity, Steele had recently purchased those very boots for the permanent collection at the Museum, and they have been reunited with the original outfit in the show, as intended.

It wasn’t until I saw them in front of me, that I gasped out loud. These were and are the McQueen pirate boots that I’ve had clippings of for years – they are the ones that got away for me, too. I have a wonderful picture of Kate Moss (another McQueen confidante), who has the same ones.

Daphne’s affection for design talent hasn’t wavered all of these years. Alongside giants like Lee and Karl and Valentino (who has known her since she was very young, and whom she described as “such a nice man, a gentle soul”), are pieces by Hogan McLaughlin, a young designer she met via Twitter. She is undoubtedly Hogan’s hero, if the red leather jumpsuit and ferocious-looking heel-less boots he designed for her, are any indication.

Daphne Guinness and Hogan McLaughlin at the opening of the Daphne Guinness Exhibit at the Museum at FIT on September 15, 2011 on Exshoesme.com
Daphne, with Hogan, at the exhibition opening in September. {Photo by Jimi Celeste.}
Daphne Guinness speaking about the collaboration with Hogan McLaughlin at the Fashion Icons and Insiders Symposium at FIT in November, 2011 on Exshoesme.com. Photo by Jyotika Malhotra.
Hogan’s heroine, talks about wearing his designs. {Photo by Jyotika Malhotra.}

Also included as armor are fittingly, a slashed Gareth Pugh dress, a Pugh suit where the jacket and pants are studded with nails (Dada, anyone?) and pieces like black and white striped, punk shop leggings – a staple in every RocknRolla‘s wardrobe on either side of the pond. The references in the small Museum room could fill a grand library!

The Armor display at the Daphne Guinness Exhibit at the Museum at FIT on Exshoesme.com
Body armor for modern goddesses. {Photo by Jimi Celeste.}

“It’s been the armadillo factor, you can hide behind it,” she told the gathering, while hiding behind a draped table, set upon a stage (not an ideal setting for a fashion talk, I must say).

Daphne Guinness and Valerie Steele speaking at the Fashion Icons and Insiders Symposium at FIT in November, 2011. Photo by Jyotika Malhotra.
Daphne Guinness and Valerie Steele speaking at the Fashion Icons and Insiders Symposium at FIT in November, 2011. {Photo by Jyotika Malhotra.}

She continued, “The Knights of the Round Table were always a great thing for me.” She spoke of her collaboration with Shaun Leane – the infamous glove that took five years to be. I loved her anecdote about McQueen here: “When’s that flipping glove going to be ready,” she mimicked in his gruff tone, “I would have made it in a month!”

The glove isn’t included in the show, but was included in the discussion. Guinness on its making:  “Sometimes you feel like things have to happen and unless you make them happen, they’re not going to happen.”

Daphne Guinness speaking about the collaboration with Shaun Leane at the Fashion Icons and Insiders Symposium at FIT in November, 2011 on Exshoesme.com. Photo by Jyotika Malhotra.
Truly a love glove. {Photo by Jyotika Malhotra.}

There is, despite all of this armor, a softer side to this studded sartorialist – as exemplified in the Evening Chic portion of the display. Here, we see Guinness’s obsession with romanticism, with literature, with history. There are Alaïa jersey dresses with the perfect drape and fall, a Lagerfeld dress and coat, a glorious McQueen taffeta evening coat and a divine Dior gown – the two latter ensembles were shown with necklaces hanging in the back, a Guinness trademark.

That McQueen coat and tassel necklace took me to another place – it had an antique Indian jewellery echo to it, in that orange gold from most 22k jewellery from the Motherland, and the beads were either ruby or tourmaline, judging by their colour. I remember seeing an old sepia photograph once, of a random maharani wearing pendants down her back. A note reserved for my next evening out.

The Evening Chic display at the Daphne Guinness Exhibit at the Museum at FIT on Exshoesme.com
Evening Chic – every night of the year. {Photo by Jimi Celeste.}

“I like structure with a bit of chaos.”

– Daphne Guinness

What I admired most is how Guinness assembled these outfits – many are styled as she would have worn them. Remember the burgundy sequined leggings from Alexander McQueen FW08? They are paired with a cream, crystal-embellished Chanel jacket.

Valerie Steele’s signature is also all over this exhibit – she is a master storyteller, using clothes as plot lines and accessories as punctuation marks. I will never forget the pieces she assembled for the Gothic: Dark Glamour show, a few years ago.

The Evening Chic 2 display at the Daphne Guinness Exhibit at the Museum at FIT on Exshoesme.com
Medieval – and modern Evening Chic at the Daphne Guinness exhibition at FIT. {Photo by Jimi Celeste.}

There is a trail of ribbon throughout this jaunty journey, too – hanging off a coat, nipping the waist of a dress, or wrapped around a wrist and secured with jewels.

Daphne Guinness signing books at FIT in November 2011 on Exshoesme.com. Photo by Jyotika Malhotra.
Daphne Guinness signing books at FIT, after her talk. {Photo by Jyotika Malhotra.}

A Victorian-era heroine resides somewhere deep within Guinness, to be sure. One can certainly see here literary love – it is worn upon her sleeve, oft pinned with a gleaming cluster of rhinestones, crystals, or diamonds.

Fittingly, the next section of the show was all about Sparkle.

“I’m like a magpie – I love anything that sparkles.”

– Daphne Guinness

The sparkle isn’t always glaring, though. There were a couple of examples in the show that had a subtle sheen in physical form, but the sparkle from them, came from elsewhere.

I had many favourites throughout the exhibit (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”), but there was one dress that seemed to call out to me. You won’t be surprised to learn that it was by Lee McQueen. There was something about it that literally made my eyes well up. It was a black, silk crepe, knee-length sort of shift, but with dull gold-embroidered ‘wings’ that would look wrapped around your upper torso, when the dress was worn.

To me, it was Lee’s heart, worn on this sleeveless dress; it was Lee wrapping you up in his arms, and Lee needing to be wrapped up in someone’s arms. It was sheer emotion, expressed through thread and fabric. I couldn’t move from the spot in front of it for what seemed like hours. I don’t have a detailed photograph of it, but the detailed execution of it will never leave my visual vocabulary. It’s the one on the far left in the photograph below.

The Sparkle display at the Daphne Guinness Exhibit at the Museum at FIT on Exshoesme.com
A little bit of sparkle, a whole lot of brilliance. {Photo by Jimi Celeste.}

Another show-stopper was the majestic feather cape. Remember when I said earlier that McQueen gave Guinness a few pieces? This was a painstaking piece of art he had created for a show, then decided not to use. He thought Guinness should have it. She described feathers as being “jolly warm” when she told the story. She had me at ‘Lee gave it to me…’

If you are in NYC this week, make time to see this show. I’ll talk about the remaining themes of Exoticism, Chic and Dandyism, in tomorrow’s post. [Update: here is Part Two] See detail shots of individual outfits in my original post on the show.

Quotes in blue are taken directly from the exhibition. All others are from my notes at the Fashion Icons & Insiders Symposium. “How Do I Love Thee” is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet XLIII – I just borrowed a phrase or two. Read the beautiful collection of her sonnets in Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Images: All photos, as credited. Jimi Celeste photos are © Patrick McMullan, and provided courtesy of FIT. Getty image as noted. All others are by yours truly – please be kind enough to provide credit and link back if you are using them on your site. Thanks.

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