A coup de foudre—that’s how Valerie Steele describes the impact of her first meeting with Daphne Guinness, the heiress, socialite, stylist, producer and designer known for her fearless personal style. The literal translation is “lightning bolt,” though the phrase can also express love at first sight. For Steele, it may have been both: She was instantly enamored of the world’s most high-profile collector and aficionado of fashion, while an idea formed so quickly as to almost crackle in Steele’s mind.
“She came to the Couture Council luncheon we did a couple of years ago for Dries Van Noten,” remembers Steele, who for 14 years has served as director and chief curator of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (the Couture Council is the museum’s fundraising arm). “I was so taken by her— not only by how knowledgeable she was about fashion, or that she was just this amazing visual spectacle. It was how incredibly intelligent and nice she was as well.”
That same day Steele floated an idea to Guinness: Would she like to be the subject of an exhibit at FIT’s museum? Guinness, whom Steele describes as “extremely humble,” demurred, noting that she “couldn’t do anything like that.” A couple of weeks later, Steele took Guinness on a personal tour of the museum’s current exhibit, and as Steele recalls, it was Guinness who again broached the subject.
Guinness asked what the project might involve, and Steele pointed to the exhibit surrounding them. “Look around. There are about 80 dresses here,” Steele said, before adding with intentional mischief, “You have 80 dresses, don’t you, sweetie?” Guinness laughed, a fast friendship was formed, and lovers of fashion are now reaping the rewards. “Daphne Guinness” opened September 16 and runs through January 7; Guinness and Steele will appear together November 3 and 4 at the museum’s 10th annual fashion symposium, this year titled “Fashion Icons and Insiders,” where they’ll sign copies of the book they cowrote about the exhibit.
An Unbelievable Couture Collection
“The buzz has been absolutely enormous; the phone hasn’t stopped ringing for group tours,” Steele says. The exhibit features roughly 100 garments and accessories from Guinness’ extensive collection—though “extensive” may be an understatement, according to Steele, who has trekked between Guinness’ homes in New York and London to research the project. “In addition to the closets, there is one large room with rolling racks, with everything organized by designer and category and catalogued in a computer database. I’ve been to museums that are less organized.”
Cocurating the exhibit with Guinness, Steele had the task of editing the epic collection, including haute couture pieces by Lacroix, Chanel, Dior and others, plus her trove of custom accessories, collaborations with the likes of Philip Treacy and Christian Louboutin—down to a manageable selection. “An exhibit is made of objects, but it also tells a story,” Steele says. She divided her choices into categories, starting with the “dandy” look, featuring jackets by Azzedine Alaïa and Alexander McQueen (Guinness’ friendship with the late designer is reflected in the exhibit, roughly one-quarter of which bears his label). “Daphne’s default look is a black jacket, black leggings, beautiful white shirt and amazing shoes, jewelry, hat and hair. It’s a very crisp, dandy-like core,” Steele notes.
Another section explores Guinness’ love of armor, with “an amazing dress and coat by Gareth Pugh,” Steele reports, while two more sections are about divinely simple dresses and suits for day and evening, a nod to the idea that “people say Daphne is eccentric, but the core is very chic and simple. It could be the most beautiful white Valentino suit, and she’ll style it with the shoes and the hat; people think it’s wild and crazy, when it’s really at its heart divinely simple.” Finally, there are the evening pieces, divided into exotic and sparkle, “all of the looks sparkling and dripping with feathers. You find yourself wondering, How can anyone have the nerve or the body to wear that?” Steele says. “Daphne always has the nerve.”
Indeed, that may best sum up why the world maintains such a fascination for one woman and what she wears. “She’s not merely a wealthy person with a closet full of couture,” Steele notes. “She’s a true collector, and also an independent spirit. She’s long held the belief that we should fly the flag for individuality in dress. Daphne always has, and I think that’s the real message here.” “Daphne Guinness” runs through January 7, 2012, at the Museum at FIT, Seventh Ave. at 27th St., 212-217-4558