JACKI LYDEN, host: A good friend of mine runs a Marcel Proust reading firm at the 19th century library in Providence, the Athenaeum. She's also a former milliner and had just been to see the fashion icon Daphne Guinness' show at the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
There are over 100 pieces of contemporary cutting-edge clothing in the collection. Afterward, my friend sent me this email: Woke up thinking about Proust and Daphne Guinness again, realizing that Proust writes from the intersection of modernity and memory, and that is the same spot at which Daphne Guinness gets dressed each day. A constant lively juxtaposition of everything in life, served up on the surface of a tiny blonde.
Though she once got dressed in Barney's New York window, Daphne Guinness is decidedly shy. Her attire includes personal armor, fingers bedecked with over-the-knuckle motorcycle rings in diamond pave.
DAPHNE GUINNESS: A crumb. Although it used to be an earring, but I recycled it.
LYDEN: Waif-thin, with hair striped both platinum and jet like a skunk's. On the day we meet, she has two rattail combs stuck in her upswept hairdo like a tiara. Black leggings and towering black platform shoes with no heels, another of her signature elements and an elegant white tunic.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Beautiful.
GUINNESS: This is a very old white dress that I've had for ages. This is an old Chanel piece. I'm normally late, so I just kind of throw on the sort of thing that's at hand. And then I'll just go through phases of wearing the same thing again and again and again. My wardrobe is mainly about black and white, so it goes together. I'll play with certain elements, but it's - I don't really think too much about it. If I start thinking about it, that's when it goes wrong.
LYDEN: Not so terribly wrong. One historian's talk on the show is called "Fashion Icons from Marie Antoinette to Daphne Guinness." Valerie Steele, FIT's director, is also the show's co-curator, along with Guinness herself.
VALERIE STEELE: I met Daphne a little more than two years ago at a luncheon. And within an hour of meeting her, I was asking her if she would do a show on her collection and her personal style, because there have been so many shows about individual great designers, but very few about the individual women of tremendous personal style who are really the ones who make the clothes come alive off the runway and in real life.
LYDEN: They went through the clothes at her homes in London and New York. Guinness owns over 3,000 pieces. These were culled to about 100 couture garments in six different areas like sparkle, exoticism, dandyism, armor. Daphne Guinness is an heiress to the Guinness brewing fortune. Her grandmother was the fascist writer Diana Mitford. She grew up partly in Spain. She was a tomboy, she says, and yet, a bit fragile.
GUINNESS: I don't know. I'm - I've always been more of a slight. And often, I've sort of felt a little bit like I kind of needed to be sort of like protected, especially with lots and lots of sort of rowdy brothers and sisters. And I always wanted to be a knight of the Round Table. It was sort of an idea that appealed to my senses kind of Gawain and the Green Knight. I'm afraid I have a - still have a very vivid imagination.
LYDEN: What changed for Daphne Guinness was her emergence from the chrysalis of extraordinary privilege. She's in her early 40s. At 19, she married a Greek shipping magnate and quickly became the mother of three. Then a decade ago, she divorced.
Her fashion style emerged as avant-garde fused with literature and theory. She might collect a vintage Balenciaga gown or a purple one-piece by an art student from Chicago and then put them together.
GUINNESS: One acts as a catalyst between two artists or, you know, and then it's sort of like, let's do that and let's do that. And then it could be a kind of natural thing. One's not very conscious of what one does.
LYDEN: It's an interior state of mind, a designer's coat worn backwards or diamonds worn on the inside of a collar, remaining unperceived to all but her. Some of her greatest inspirations were her close friends, the British fashion journalist Isabella Blow and Alexander "Lee" McQueen. Blow, known for her fantastical headwear like a three-foot-tall sailing ship, really wanted her friend Guinness to meet McQueen. But the shy Guinness demurred, preferring to admire him from afar. And then one day in London.
GUINNESS: I was walking towards Leicester Square with a kimono on, and this person goes, oy. And I turn around, and he goes: I'm Lee. I'm Alexander. I'm the person who you don't want to meet.
LYDEN: McQueen's studio was a haven, she says, and they talked about their lives much more than about fashion. Those lives were not always easy. In 2007, Isabella Blow, ill from cancer, committed suicide. In 2010, Guinness was asked to persuade her friend, Alexander McQueen, to do a retrospective show in New York.
GUINNESS: So I called him up, and he said: I think it's a bit soon for a retrospective. Cut to six months later...
LYDEN: Six months later, McQueen committed suicide. He was 40. His show called "Savage Beauty" opened May 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum and drew over a half million visitors.
GUINNESS: And I live right near the Met. And having to see every day in front of it, I kept on just thinking, this is like a bad dream. I mean, this was just not supposed to happen.
LYDEN: McQueen may have been the designer to whom she was closest. He made her a gift of an opera coat of raven feathers, an Edwardian jacket with solid silver life-size eagle epaulets. But she describes herself as a bee among designers who flies from flower to flower. And this world, seeing and admired by so many, says Valerie Steele, is nonetheless a vulnerable world.
STEELE: That's what you're really appreciating when you're talking about the artistry of fashion. And it's not just the genius of one or another designer, but it's also a whole centuries of civilization that went into the craftsmanship that is expressed in the couture by all of the workers who are able to make things. And it's very fragile because that could disappear very easily under the forces of fast fashion. There's no need for it.
LYDEN: As in the sense, there's no need for a piece of music, a painting or a catsuit, a bodysuit worn from neck to toe. The British designer Gareth Pugh made one for her with nails, thousands of them facing out like a porcupine. She'd seen it on the runway in Paris.
GUINNESS: He called me up one day, and he said: Do you want the nails in the bum? And I said: Yes, absolutely. He said: Well, you're going to give yourself a lot of acupuncture.
LYDEN: There's no need for the extraordinary footwear she wears, which she swears are comfortable.
GUINNESS: No way. I wouldn't wear anything that was uncomfortable. Stilettos are uncomfortable, but the heel is actually concealed in the shoes, an optical illusion. But now I can go on point.
LYDEN: And watching her walk on point is a bit like watching a water insect skate along 5th Avenue. Guinness has famously said that she doesn't do event dressing because every day is an event just to be alive, to celebrate and to champion being an individual.
GUINNESS: I mean, people just say, well, why don't you just go wear a pair of jeans or something? And I would say, because I don't like them. You know, I don't tell everybody else what to wear. I'd never dream of it. I mean, frankly, I would never judge someone else.
LYDEN: But of course, the Daphne Guinness show will be judged, and she's ready for it.
GUINNESS: I have to do this because the context of so much of the history of these things has been lost, and there's a whole generation of students and children that haven't seen this. And for them to be able to see how things could be made and to be able to allow their imaginations to run and not to have to feel that they have to wear this or that in order to be accepted.
LYDEN: And then there's this. When she sees these clothes, these works of art, she sees the faces, the hands and hears the voices of those who made them.
GUINNESS: When you put on something that - someone that you really love, it means so much because you think of that person. You think of the process. And when I go to look around that room, it's not about me. It's about lots of pyramids of people. You know, from the makeup to the hair or the laughs that we had, there's masses and masses of different families that one's part of. And that's what's so humbling, because it's not just me. It's a lovely network.
LYDEN: One felt that she did not dress simply for the comfort of the adornment of her body. She was surrounded by her garments and by the delicate and spiritualized machinery of a whole civilization. Marcel Proust never met Guinness, but now, you have a chance. The show "Daphne Guinness" is up until January 7th. Be sure to check out her shoes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.