A large crowd gathered at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum to celebrate the opening of Isabella Blow: A Fashionable Life in May of this year. The Honourable Daphne Guinness was in attendance, her first trip to Australia. As a descendent of the famed Guinness family from Ireland, her lineage is impeccable, her style legendary. Once called the most stylish woman in the world by Karl Lagerfeld, she is in person pale, slight and beautiful, with razor sharp cheekbones. She took to the stage, a vision with her magnificent black and white upswept hair, glittery heel-less platform boots and bejeweled fingers, regal as Boadicea. Yet when she began to speak of Isabella Blow, and the collection, her voice cracked and she sighed deeply. “I feel as if she’s here,” she whispered quietly. “It’s very emotional for me. It hits me every time I see it.”
Isabella Blow was one of the fashion world’s great connoisseurs and bohemians, a British aristocrat, stylist, muse and mentor of young, seminal designers such as Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and milliner Philip Treacy, and models such as Stella Tennant, Honor Fraser and Sophie Dahl. After Blow tragically suicided in 2007, her vast estate of clothes and accessories were to be auctioned, when the Honourable Daphne Guinness stepped in to purchase the entire collection. Guinness could not bear the idea of her dear friend’s collection be left fragmented, and in a gesture of extraordinary philanthropy, has preserved an important and evocative chapter of social history. The Powerhouse exhibition is only the second time the collection has been seen outside of London, but Guinness has plans for it to continue to tour globally. “It will be curated slightly differently each time, we will tailor it to the space,” she says.
Guinness could not bear the idea of her dear friend’s collection be left fragmented, and in a gesture of extraordinary philanthropy, has preserved an important and evocative chapter of social history.
Born in 1967, Guinness grew up with great wealth, living mostly between Ireland, Spain and London. She has always lived a peripatetic life inhabited by extraordinary people—she has been reported to have swam in Salvador Dali’s lobster filled pool—and it was these influences that shaped her creative life. “When I grew up I was always surrounded by artists, I had a really bohemian childhood. All of those disciplines (art, theatre, fashion and film) were so apparent. It was very normal to me.”
Although Guinness and Blow had met on numerous occasions while they were both growing up, their friendship really began in 1998. It seems natural the two women would be drawn to each other, standard bearers for the theatrical, extravagant, glamorous, fragile and artistic, and both with a passionate belief in supporting young fashion talent. The pressure on designers is currently a hot topic of debate, and the memory of McQueen’s suicide naturally hovers above the conversation. But Guinness has no desire for the bleak. “To me, the exhibit wasn’t about a funeral,” she told The Cut after the collection was presented in Somerset House, London. “It was about how they lived, Lee (Alexander McQueen) and Issy. They were my friends.” There is great kindness in Guinness’ voice as she talks about the perils of the fashion industry. “There is so much pressure now. It is such a gruelling system.” Guinness established the Isabella Blow Foundation, to not only preserve Blow’s legacy, but to raise funds for mental health and depression services, understanding the “hamster wheel” that is the four-seasons-in-a-year fashion system. “It’s a slightly poisoned chalice if you are sensitive or artistic,” Guinness comments, “it leaves very little time for dreaming”.
While Guinness is known for her signature style of skinny black pants, teetering McQueen Armadillo boots and sharply tailored jackets akin to armor, her real creativity is expressed through music, and at the age of 48, she has embraced a new chapter in her career. Her album, Optimist in Black was released in May 2016 alongside a video for the single The Long Now. Given her impeccable connections, Guinness collaborated with the best, including legendary music producer Tony Visconti, the genius behind Marc Bolan and T. Rex and numerous David Bowie albums, including Diamond Dogs and Young Americans. “Yes, David [Bowie] was very supportive of me,” Guinness notes quietly. Shot in black and white, the video features Guinness strolling the streets of Manhattan. “We shot it in one night!” she enthuses. The song itself has a wonderful English eccentricity with her voice and delivery not unlike a 1960s Nico, albeit with an upbeat energy which is infectious. Guinness in person seems quite shy and reserved, incongruent to her glamorous and dramatic appearance. But in music, she has obviously found her place. “Definitely, all of the art and the fashion now makes more sense,” she confirms. “Now that I have put them into the context of music, I seem to have completed the cycle.”
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