Review: Daphne Guinness at the Museum at FIT

Fall in New York for fashion insiders means of course only one thing, Fashion Week, followed by weeks of travel at high volume, all of that ending back at the start in equal parts awe and dismay after a long week in Paris.

For young designers returning to the city however, it’s a chance to start again, or try harder depending on which vocation happens to be whispering your name up and down the avenue. At the Fashion Institute of Technology, the whisper to attending students this semester seemed to be a bold, almost shrill conceit. It’s rigor here or else, so get to work, for on the ground level, not far from the studio, an earnest and sparkling tribute to anybody’s dream client has been set to serve as an instructive, and perhaps even stylistically moral premises for why all the trouble is so sincerely worth the fuss.


Daphne Guinness by David LaChappelle


The magisterial Daphne Guinness, whose famous sci-fi/Edwardian mixes are considered de rigueur for glamazon up-starts on both sides of the Atlantic, has lent a tremendous assortment of truly one-of-a-kind pieces to the Museum at FIT, where director and chief curator Valerie Steele has led, with much care, the creation of a gourmet feast for the appetite of the eye.

At the center of a honeycomb-shaped foyer adjacent to the central gallery is the dazzling, silver-sequined cat suit and parachute cape made especially for her by Alexander McQueen. The formation brings to mind the detail-rich, introductory scenes from Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2, surrounding a central, spectral composition with exceptional ornamentation – specifically, a suite of heel-less platforms by Ninna Ricci and Massaro, among others – to convey Ms. Guinness’s preoccupation with landscape.


“I did a life drawing course at the Slade,” she told Depesha Editor-in-Chief Stephan Rabimov during a recent interview. “I’d wanted to take an architecture drawing course and the professor said no. Do the human body first, and then you’ll understand architecture. It’s the original geometry.” A challenge she now hocks in reverse at fashion, as well as the precepts of femininity, using something as marvelously geometric as a vertiginous shoe.

That’s just the beginning. The other arrangements are as reliably drastic as they are playfully precise, with six sections of the exhibition devoted to a particular aspect of her style and crowded by figurines styled to the hilt, altogether adrift in a sea of scrim and glass like a stratum of alien beach towns. Overhead, a silent hologram of Ms. Guinness, vacuum-sealed into her McQueen body suit, knowingly turns its head this way, then that way.


The match between icon and institution here – which at first glance seems both especially punctual and scholarly – is a natural fit, as Ms. Guinness made easily understood when she arrived at the exhibition’s opening reception wearing a cosmic gunmetal cutaway coat designed by the all but unknown 22 year-old Chicagoan, Hogan McLaughlin, whom she referred to casually, when asked, as, “Hogan.” Their professional partnership began after a brief interaction on Twitter, where Mr. McLaughlin first introduced himself. Her appreciation for newcomers with vision features other accomplices on full display inside, with key pieces by Gareth Pugh and Comme des Garçons.

Ms. Guinness’s tendency to “simplify” and to be “crisp looking” is represented by designers as disparate as Azzedine Alaïa and Rick Owens, whose memorable high-collar, sleeveless evening coat in pale grey silk faille mixes with a Dolce & Gabbana wrap dress and belt in gold, black and orange leopard patterned sequins. Another remarkable sync pairs a Christian Lacroix silk faille jacket with a sleeveless embroidered McQueen dress in beige cotton knit next to one of Jun Takahashi’s black wool Undercover skull coats.



Many of the silhouettes are surprisingly light and digestible, but hardly fleeting. An intrigue for fetishistic specificity and tasteful elaboration sees to that, but also indicates what Ms. Guinness is essentially testing, that is the limits of her own otherworldly apparition.

“We go to such lengths to adorn ourselves that we almost become our clothes or are taken over by them,” Sarah Burton wrote in the press notes for the Alexander McQueen spring 2012 ready-to-wear collection shown in Paris last month.

That the exhibition doesn’t include a single bead or feather from the Isabella Blow collection – which Ms. Guinness purchased outright in its entirety after the stylist’s death in 2007 – is perhaps a welcome relief, for the time present at least. The exhibition’s focus remains smartly on Daphne alone, and the company she keeps in her closets. It may seem more certain, then, with this important turn, which what may ultimately change the way the women dress now will be built on a similar premise: that fashion should play more upon the curve of human conduct rather than the single prodigious creativity of star designers.



As for the exhibition’s commercial and public appeal, it should be mentioned that cultural oddities of a kind like these constitute at least another step in the right direction for the luxury business, which deserves some thanks for pushing the envelope and creating the world of tomorrow Ms. Guinness endorses daily.

One would think in close proximity to the faddish demands of celebrity that fashion today has already become totally irrelevant in a whatever-land incapable of communicating new ideas without the help of a determined pop-star. Ms. Guinness is nothing of the sort, and nothing like her predecessors, which include Mona von Bismarck, Nan Kempner, Susan Mary Alsop and so on, all of whom have received sparkling style tributes by museums and galleries across the globe, but only after being checked and re-checked by history.

Ms. Guinness seems to have no trouble making it herself, with or without the spoils, which despite her trepidations, and a humble approach, are a pleasure to behold.

The exhibition Daphne Guinness will be on display at the Museum at FIT now through January 7, 2012.

Michael Lobban


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