Nov 21, 2011

Daphne Guinness Exhibit at FIT

 If you've grown tired of Occupying Wall Street, head over to the museum at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology so you can see how the 1% lives. 

That's the way I felt after visiting the Daphne Guinness exhibit, which is the museum's first to chronicle a single person's style. If you don't know who Guinness is, she's very rich, very beautiful and is a collector of haute couture. She's heir to the beer family's fortune and something of a muse to many of the biggest names in fashion, including the late Alexander McQueen. Indeed, there are dozens of stunning pieces by McQueen in the FIT exhibit, so if you missed "Savage Beauty" at the Met, this is the next best thing (and it's FREE!). Other notable designers heavily represented in the collection: Nina Ricci, Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Lacroix, and Valentino.

The clothes are truly amazing. The video presentations on Guinness.... less so. In one, about her fragrance, she really seemed to be phoning it in. On creating her scent, roughly paraphrased: "It's in my mind. I don't really think about it too much...." Come again?

Throughout the exhibit are quotes from Guinness explaining her style, including her love of armour. Again, roughly paraphrased, though her wording was no more eloquent than this: "I love armour. It's beautiful to wear metal — and it has protective qualities." Deep. 
As remarkable as it was, gazing into the closet of a billionaire reminded me a little of an ex-boyfriend of mine. He was so proud of his music collection — to the point that one could wonder whether he actually thought he had a hand in creating his most treasured albums. But collecting is not the same thing as creating.  Is good taste a talent unto itself? Should we be at all surprised that one of the richest women in the world is a trendsetter in fashion? (Of course, I realize having this collection on view is a gift for the fashion students at FIT. Seeing such garments up close is so much more instructive than seeing them in a magazine or a book. There were many stunning examples of design. My favourite was this Chanel dress with copper-sequined yoke and epaulets:)

I didn't go to this exhibit expecting to feel any animosity toward the woman whose clothes I wanted to see. Indeed I felt nothing of this sort after seeing Savage Beauty, the Met's exhibition on McQueen. The clothes themselves are truly captivating. But I guess I had hoped for more from someone who is known for daring style and support of up-and-coming young designers than "I like shiny things" (a direct quote from Guinness. Also, my three-year-old says this occasionally).

Am I being too hard on Daphne Guinness?  I know since moving to New York City I've had issues with class politics (the Sunday Times' Style Section, for one, never fails to fuel my class rage). As the recession drags on, and so many people I know are just hoping to make it through the winter without having to buy new boots, to parade around in such ridiculously impractical outfits — or laud someone as an artist for doing so — it's a little unseemly. That's not to say art or fashion should take the backseat during economic hard times (beautiful things make us happier, more hopeful, right?), but the emperor has new shoes, and they're impossible to walk in.


  1. I don't think she's an artist - more like a patron of the arts of fashion. I'd have more respect for her choices if she was spending money that she had earned herself by hard work. But when the money you are spending has no direct relationship to any sort of effort on your part? Then it's really easy to make choices based on the "Ooohh - shiny. I want it now!" factor. Just like my 5 year old...

  2. Excellent review, Suzanne, and I am inclined to agree with you. In her defense (sort of), Guinness is more likely to have been approached by FIT than the other way around (though I could be wrong). She really does have an exciting collection of couture.

    Also, a few of the garments she designed -- or "designed" -- herself. Anyway, she had some part in their creation, so she's not just a compulsive shopper.

    I totally agree that in this economic climate, the show ends up looking out of touch, and Guinness like a complete space alien. Still, it's not HER fault she's heir to a billion...

  3. It's true, FIT did approach her (I heard the curator on WNYC talking about it). I think it was generous of her to donate her collection to FIT for the duration of the exhibit. Again, students benefit so much from seeing these pieces. And of course she's a "designer"! That's what really rich women do when they're bored, right? (the modern-day equivalent of watercolours) For example: Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, Jessica Simpson...I could go on. I'm pretty sure it works like this: a real designer makes a bunch of sketches, and the celebrity points to the shiniest thing.

  4. Just to play devil's advocate, why is it we always assume rich people are "bored?" (I'm guilty of this myself.) Maybe the Olsens really love fashion and loved the challenge.

  5. Peter, rich people are bored because they have no chores to do. I can't even remember the last time I was bored. What a luxury!

  6. "Bored" might not be the right term - but "looking for something to fill up the hours that other people have to spend working in order to feed themselves" takes too long to say.
    Maybe the Olsens do love fashion - and maybe some Victorian ladies did love watercolurs. But in both cases exploring that was only feasible because they had the choice, the resources, and the time to pursue it.

  7. @ birdmommy: excellent definition of the word bored, as pertaining to le rich.

    and excellent post-- i love how you tied it up with the emperor's new shoes. i do think it's an art to pull those looks together, it's walking art, but it's such a fine frivolous line when the artist talks about it AS art, on themselves.

    if you type art enough it becomes a weird animal sound in your head.

  8. That where some strong thoughts. I do agree that calling her an artist is going to far. But staying true to your style and making it unique can't be that easy. The "shiny-reflex" would just make a sparkly mess. Wouldn't it? Where there any videos on her walking in those shoes? Or infos as to how long she can keep them on?

  9. you heard the woman describe herself and her style, in her own words and even her own voice, and it made you dislike her. But YOU should apologize for feeling that way? Not in my book. Both the exhibit and the woman sound a little tone-deaf, and could have used some editing and reshaping to avoid that.

    I will be in the neighborhood tomorrow and will drop in for a peek.

  10. I think ' having good taste' and being a "designer" are equated as being the same thing, when it comes to describing rich patrons or celebrity "designers". Very honest reaction to the show, don't think i'll get to see it though!

  11. I can see how it can be hard to stomach seeing someone loading up on haute couture when others are struggling to get by, but it's really just another form of art that very few can afford. I don't begrudge rich art collectors for buying Picassos, either. Not only does she have awesome style, it IS actually difficult to dress quite well when you're rich. Money, as they say, can't buy taste. You see tons of people wearing super-boring Oscar suits, or wearing matching LV outfits styled the exact same way as the runways. I'm glad they're buying fashion, but it does take that extra oomph to really style and carry and choose it well, which Daphne does. Clothes often get short shrift, as we all wear them, while some (most?) of us don't buy high-end art and thus see that as a more legit way to spend extra baller money. Clothes are as good a way to support art as any (even if some of it is more mass-produced than others), and if you can do it impeccably and with originality and verve, then more power to you.

    And, for the plebes among us, we can aspire to dressing better to weather these troubling times:

    Sidenote: The Olsen twins are actually extremely talented designers. Whether they were child celebs and society fixtures or not, their lines (The Row, and Elizabeth & James) are amazing. They design everything themselves and care a great deal about the lines, and are, essentially, designers who happened to act as children, rather than social butterflies masquerading as designers (which happens, often). They're a real force in the fashion world.



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