Phoenix Rising

Daphne Guinness takes us into the light.

    Words by Mariana Nannarone
  • Photography by Matthew Priestley @ Kintzing
  • Styling by Daniel F. Arroyo
  • Styling Assistant Maria Sanchez-Calvo
  • Directed by Matthew Tyler Priestley and Jon Mercer
  • Camera: Jon Mercer

Daphne Guinness is a connector: of people, of worlds, of ideas pulled from the past and those yet to be envisioned. Long known for her singular role in fashion, in which she turned the act of getting dressed into an art form, Guinness slips in and out of art, philanthropy, and music, while always staying true to herself. Her get-ups—from cantilevered platform shoes to her beloved catsuits—have been described as avant-garde, but perhaps the most radical aspect of what she wears is the lack of artifice involved: it is who she is, to the core. With the act of collaboration as her craft, Guinness has created her own vocation outside the lines, or perhaps more accurately, in the spaces between them. A master at turning pain into exquisite beauty, she’s weathered the loss of close friends—among them Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow—yet managed to honor their names and help cement their places in history, while supporting efforts to raise awareness about mental health and combat the illnesses that plagued them.

Her new album—Daphne & The Golden Chord, out in April—strikes a prophetic note that is near-apocalyptic at first but ultimately full of hope and redemption. “Your polar caps are melting, and your heroes are all gone,” Guinness intones, yet “out of the ashes/brimstone and flashes” comes the crescendo: “the rise of the phoenix.” More than just a rare bird—though she does sport brilliant plumage, and looks as though at any moment she could take flight—Guinness embodies that phoenix, cognizant of those who have come before but unbowed and triumphant, heading toward the sun.

SUITED: How does it all connect for you—fashion, art, music—in how you approach your craft?

Daphne Guinness: Well, it’s very funny. Someone asked me that the other night, they said, “Daphne, how do you feel in that catsuit?” And I’m thinking, This is a normal day. I mean, I go to the studio dressed like that. That is how I dress. I don’t dress up.I just dress. And I’m normally in a catsuit! I don’t think about having a look. It’s a rolling work in progress. I know that sounds weird. I guess that’s just being an artist. That’s how it is. I don’t show up in a tracksuit to the studio. No. I’m always like this [gestures to her signature immaculately coiffed two-toned hair]. I sleep like this.

SUITED: How do you find the people that you work with, who make your clothes?

DG: We find each other somehow, really bizarrely. The Blonds, I met them through a catsuit—the only costume that wasn’t mine on the “Evening in Space” shoot [for my debut album]. I took all my clothes to that, but there was this one catsuit. I thought, This is very, very cool. And it turned out that it was theirs. But I hadn’t really thought about it until I met them with a friend of mine who I’ve worked with a lot called Joe Lally. And he said, “I’ve been in touch with these people called the Blonds and they really love you.” He wanted them to be in the video. And I said, “Great.” And so we met each other and they said, “You wore our catsuit on your ‘Evening in Space’ video,” and I thought, It was your catsuit! You do it because you love the people. That really has to be number one. You have to love the people that you’re doing it with. And then the rest follows.

SUITED: It’s a collaboration.

DG: Very much so. When Lee [McQueen] was alive, he was great, because he’d know I was about to do something. He got it very quickly. He’d say, “Tell me what you want, I’ll send it.” And then we’d sit together and I’d say, “I need a catsuit—eight of them,” and he’d say, “How many catsuits do you need?” We’d laugh and laugh. It was a depressing time when I had a lot of people disappear from my life. Those were dark, heavy days. There was a lot of sadness. It was difficult to not get drawn into the vortex. The only thing to do is to kind of save yourself.

SUITED: What kept you going?

DG: Everything I do has a meaning. I was doing the Barneys windows thing, I had [the show at the Museum at FIT] going on, and the [Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition on Alexander McQueen] suddenly was happening. Six months before my show opened, Lee killed himself. And I had already bought the Isabella [Blow who died in 2007] stuff and there was all this stuff that I was having to lend to the Met. I wanted some way to pull it all together, because Isabella was so much a part of all of this. I said, “I want to put Isabella here [in the windows], she needs to be in New York when there’s the Metropolitan thing going on.”

It was my little protest. I didn’t really plan on doing that. It was me having a brainwave in front of people at Barneys. And them going, “Yeah, absolutely, do it.” And I’m like, well, that’s certainly not going to happen. And, of course, it did happen. And I was like, What I have done this time? But it worked out well, because it did pull together. Even if it was just me that understood why I was doing it. For anybody else, it looked like a very, very strange move on my part. But it was out of pure grief.

SUITED: You then became involved with mental health charities. Was that a channel for your grief?

DG: Absolutely. I thought, What does this all mean? I don’t know how I ended up with all of this. There’s no one to have a laugh with, you know? The mental health charity [the Isabella Blow Foundation] grew out of that as well. I thought, If this reaches or if this touches anybody in any way, then I’m going to sell my clothes and I’m going to start this foundation. I’ve got to somehow straighten out this karma. Because it’s not going well. It’s one thing for everybody to be upset, and it is very upsetting, but it’s another thing doing something about it.

SUITED: Really being a force of positive change.

DG: The only way I can do it is to change myself, change the way I’m looking at this. Because this will happen, no doubt, again. It’s unpleasant losing your friends. It’s unpleasant that this is all happening. And it’s very common. It’s much more common than people want to talk about.

SUITED: How do you see change for the future? How do you envision it?

DG: I try to invent my own future, which is kind of inventing your present. What’s exciting is there are so many connections that I can make, with all the different kinds of excavations I’ve been doing, different worlds. I can see it. It’s a question of sometimes just crossing town and getting one person to meet this person and making that connection. It’s the things I’ve got a vested interest in, forgive the pun. This doesn’t exist—I need to invent it.

SUITED: You’ve invented a new profession, a new way of looking at things.

DG: It’s so much fun. I can’t even tell how different it is from not having the music to having the music. I feel protected again. My soul feels so much more at ease. It’s all possible, and quite fun and funny. It’s not so bad. It felt like I had gone through some very dark places in the first album and I was going through into the light. The music had a lot to do with that. It was a huge way for me to process what had happened to me. After two very, very dark tracks, I started thinking, there’s an enormous subtext; I’m saying one thing but there’s a whole chapter underneath. And I discovered that it was still possible to record on analog.

SUITED: What drew you to analog? Was it the process, the feeling?

DG: The feeling, the process, the way the old records sounded. And also because I like looking at all the equipment, all the different microphones and all the different compressors and all the different rigs and setups and studios. I wanted to make an album that was close in spirit to what would have been experienced in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and to be able to use that equipment. It’s the difference between shooting on digital cameras or 35mm film. It sounds different on magnetic tape. You can put it under a microscope. And also the tension in that room, when you press that red button. There’s something special that happens in the room.

SUITED: You’re on.

DG: This is it. I’m just pushing it and pushing it. I will be writing it in the box, in the vocal box. Sometimes I will be literally on the last take and I’ll figure it out. I’ll shut my eyes to wait for it all to sync into place. Sound speaks to me. And what’s been astonishing about this whole process is that I will have people coming up to me, saying, “I connect with that—that happened to me.” And I will think, I really touched on a human level, because you think you’re alone. You think, Is it just me, what’s wrong with me? And you find that, actually, these are very, very universal feelings.

SUITED: What’s the meaning of the golden chord?

DG: The running joke is that I always come up with an in-between chord, an in-between note. I will come up with the one chord that no one can play. With your voice, you can get there. But to work out the arrangements, it’s quite complicated.

SUITED: Do you think you have that experience in other creative areas of your life, that idea of not being constrained by the usual technical limitations?

DG: I think that’s correct. I’ve had no training—life, to me, is training. That sounds like a cliché, but I haven’t had formal training in anything. I just learned as I did it. Sometimes when I go to the Met [Opera], I think, I could have maybe done this. But then again, I will think to myself, when I did those arias, you’ve got to get inside the head of that character. And whatever that character is, that’s not me. It goes back to the notes within the notes. All the negative spaces between what I’ve said already. What’s not to love about putting everything into music and visuals and sound and vision?

SUITED: I’m thinking back to what you said about being fully dressed at the studio,that you don’t wear a tracksuit to record. That must come across in the music even though we can’t see what you’re wearing or what you look like.

DG: Tony [Visconti, who produced the album] was amazing. He thought I was going to come in a tracksuit. He’s going, What is this strange creature that suddenly alighted in my studio?

SUITED: A rare bird.

DG: I don’t even think about it. I just think I look normal, because when I was growing up, everybody looked like that. No one was upset if you looked weird. I was the same as everybody else. I was either in a school uniform or allowed to do my thing.

SUITED: And it’s normal for you.

DG: It would be kind of weird if I started not being me. I would be depressed. This is how I am. It is who I am. I’ve been this way for a long time.

Special thanks to Dune Studios
Special thanks to Albright Fashion Library

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