Article can be read at The New York Times
Daphne Guinness, Fashion’s Wild Child
By GUY TREBAY
NO organ is more promiscuous than the eye, and no appetite more insatiable than the hunger to look. These truths go a long way toward explaining the preoccupations of a culture whose interest in imagery is defining. They also help one understand the ever-creeping appeal of fashion, a sphere that, like sport, is largely populated by arresting-looking people doing stuff that is legible without the help of words.
It is not that fashion never requires translation; a lot of it is arcane even to adepts. Certain people, too, contradictorily are both creations of the fashion world and yet somehow seem to exist outside it. Actors in a social theater, as we all are, they rise above the ordinary by giving sartorial performances unfettered by the bonds of convention or propriety or practicality or, often enough, common sense.
Daphne Guinness is one such wonderful oddity. Over the last year, hers has been among the most startling, engaging and snake-fascinating presences on the scene. Whether darting across the Place Vendôme in Paris or chatting with Alex Rodriguez at a mosh-pit art-world dinner during Art Basel Miami Beach or seated demurely at a staid dinner benefiting the American Academy in Rome, Ms. Guinness is a reliably otherworldly apparition.
Her mounds of skunk-dyed hair may be piled to “Bride of Frankenstein” heights or cantilevered in a lace kerchief that lends her a resemblance to a Rastafarian with an opulent mane of dreadlocks. Her lithe sparrow’s frame may be cinched into a sequined dress from the latest Chanel couture collection or swathed in majestic Grecian draperies or stiff garments that resemble something out of the wardrobe closet for “Spartacus” or gold lamé leggings that look as if they’d been applied with an airbrush.
Whatever else she has on, Ms. Guinness invariably wears the real jewels, her own, that distinguish her from the numerous society sandwich-boards seen strutting around, camera ready, in borrowed finery and gems. And she is typically shod in footgear whose platform soles are so high that they defy both the precepts of feminism and the laws of gravity (and the latter not always successfully; she has been known to tumble from the heights of her specially made Christian Louboutins). Venetian courtesans teetering on 17th-century wooden chopines had nothing on Ms. Guinness, whose progress to the women’s room from the dinner table at one charity dinner last fall kept a room full of guests in bated-breath suspense.
Who is this woman, what form of rara avis bedecked in diamonds and plumes?
You won’t have any trouble finding out if you ask a person with the least interest in style. Ms. Guinness — as Lady Gaga, an avowed fan, could tell you — is a titled brewery heiress; a granddaughter of Diana Mitford, the wife of the British nobleman and fascist Oswald Mosley; the ex-wife of Spyros Niarchos, scion of a fabulously wealthy Greek shipping dynasty; the 43-year-old mother of three children; the consort of Bernard-Henri Lévy, a wealthy French intellectual almost as renowned for his mind as for his luxuriant mane; and a muse to photographers as unalike as David LaChapelle and Steven Klein and to designers like the English tyro Gareth Pugh.
That she has always been defined in terms of the men in her life goes a long way toward explaining Ms. Guinness’s reinvention of herself roughly a decade ago as a kind of performance artist whose tool kit is her wardrobe. The febrile-looking, almost lunar creature that emerged from a wifely chrysalis can sometimes appear as a techno/aesthetic movement mash-up: part Huysmans and part Jules Verne. That she is handsome and even-featured only partly explains the way she captivates viewers and the lens of a camera. Plenty of good-looking women of fashion get themselves up in outlandish outfits; relatively few retain interest after the initial jolt of surprise has faded away.
Because she is rich and socially secure and also blessed with theatrical gifts hard to categorize, Ms. Guinness tends to fall outside the understanding of many observers, who look at her wearing shoes with no heels or face-obscuring veils or headpieces reminiscent of carnival ponies and brand her a freak.
What Daphne Guinness is not, she insists, is eccentric. “I truly hate the word,” she said recently, a complaint uttered first in a telephone call from London and repeated from 35,000 feet above the Atlantic as she flew to the South of France for Christmas (as a stipulation of the Guinness-Niarchos divorce settlement, her children spend the holidays with their father’s family). “I’m actually very grounded,” she added. “Also, eccentrics are almost asexual, and that is not something you can say of me, by any means.”
For Ms. Guinness, her wardrobe antics and often outlandish appearances in public “are kind of an ever-evolving art project,” she explained. “When I was a child,” being raised largely among the haute bohemians of the wealthy expatriate colony of Cadaqués, Spain, Ms. Guinness said: “I was overly serious and thoughtful, a real tomboy, always dressing up as a knight or a pirate or a red Indian. If there is anything you can say about me, it’s that I have not lost the imagination I had when I was 5 years old.”
Neither has she lost the tendency to dress in a way that makes it sometimes seem as if she is pushing impatiently outward at the boundaries of gender. Yet critics who see in Ms. Guinness's tough technological style — in her slightly barbarous emphasis on wearing feathers and pelts, in her taste for hardware — a rebuke to traditional femininity might be surprised to learn that she is, in person, a surprisingly girly girl. “For so much of my life, it was about being as small as possible or even invisible,” she said. “As a Niarchos, I was told constantly that you must and mustn’t be this or that. After I left my marriage, I found I was able to flex my muscles, to play with the way I looked again.”
Fashion, noted Ms. Guinness, who said she never reads the fashion magazines that make a fetish of her (“Scientific American is my heaven,” she said), is not meant to be taken seriously. Rule-bound by definition, fashion nonetheless holds out the possibility for self-transformation, masquerade, serious flights of fancy and even occasionally cultural critique. In Ms. Guinness’s case, it also provides a pretext for the enactment of a continuing commentary on what it means to perform the public role of a woman; as a kind of 21st-century geisha, she finds herself with the means to bypass traditional systems of patronage and the wit to mount a lively, unorthodox theater of womanliness solely to amuse herself.
“Of course, I get it wrong 60 percent of the time, but it’s about the experimentation,” Ms. Guinness said. “So much spirit and freedom of experimentation died in the ’80s,” she added. “It started with AIDS; AIDS wiped all that out. And so many of the people who would understand what I’m doing are dead now. Still, even though I am not trained at this, I try to find new ways of expressing myself and to use whatever it is I have creatively. I am not an eccentric, and I am not some sort of multitrillionaire just interested in buying clothes.”
Clothes are far from a driving force, Ms. Guinness said. What inspires her experimental flights is something more hard-headed and ordinary — a bristling refusal to conform.
“What drives me now is the idea of something being against the world,” she said. “I’m an artist, I suppose.”