THE SUNDAY TIMES
21 OCTOBER 2007

DAPHNE GUINNESS - HEIRESS APPARENT

A £20m fortune, a to-die-for couture habit and a collection of art to rival Saatchi’s – Daphne Guinness has it all. But, as she reveals to Christa D’Souza, there’s more to life than money.

There is a certain type of customer who can make a shop assistant's day. The couture-loving socialite, heiress and film producer Daphne Guinness is just that customer, and, as she whooshes through the door of Dover Street Market, a blur of pigeon's-blood nail polish and badger-striped hair, one can feel the collective clasping of fingertips, the swell of admiration, from the floor. Would that all rich people had such wacky, madcap taste! Would that all Dover Street's clientele got it like her! And no wonder the shop has collaborated with her on her very own label - Daphne - to be housed next to either Alaïa or Lanvin (whichever she would prefer). For this season, there are five perfect white shirts, all exquisite cotton pique, pearl buttons and heavily starched collar and cuffs, one of which she is wearing today to great effect with pull-up stockings, black patent Mary Janes and a tightly belted jumper dress - "more jumper than dress, though, I fear", she says, tugging at the hem. "Oh dear, I do hope one can't see everything . . ."

 

For the next, it might be five perfect pairs of black trousers. For another, it might be five perfect skirts (yes, please! Although what looks good on the size minus 2 Guinness may not look good on everybody, it has to be said). Then there is this silver handcuff she is wearing, part of the suit of armour she has just designed with Alexander McQueen's favourite jeweller, Shaun Leane. "It's silver, you know, not gold," Guinness says as she leads the way up to the shop's cafe, her frail, birdlike frame somewhat overwhelmed by the giant green crocodile Hermès bag she has in the crook of her pin-thin arm, "so it doesn't even have to be that expensive. See, that's my new thing. The democratisation of fashion. People think I'm so into couture, and I am, but things don't necessarily have to be that expensive to be good. As long as they are expensive enough to last. The thing about my shirts, hopefully, is that the more you wash them, the nicer they'll get. I do so loathe this dry-clean-only business, the way Sketchley has so completely taken it over. My idea of heaven would be to open up a proper, old-fashioned laundry, where shirts could be laundered in a proper, old-fashioned way. There's one in New York; there's one in Paris. So why not open one here, too?" 

 

Welcome, then, to the utterly madcap, delightfully glamorous, teensy bit brittle world of Daphne Guinness. A world that her great-aunt Nancy Mitford (her grandmother was Diana Mitford, the infamous society beauty who fell in love with Oswald Mosley) would surely have loved to chronicle. No doubt it would include reference to her great friend and distant relative Isabella Blow, the eccentric fashion muse and fellow armour-lover who tragically committed suicide earlier this year, and whose mantle one cannot help feeling, sitting here watching Guinness being so adoringly scrutinised by the Japanese tourists on the next table, has been passed on. 

 

"Oh my God, I dain't knair!" she cries, silver handcuff shooting up to a rouged cheekbone in genuine modesty. "I mean, Izzy - Izzy was great. A proper person. With proper existential angst, and a real artist, too. But it's true, we did have a very similar outlook on life, and I knew at the end exactly how she felt. We were either terribly excited about something or terribly upset about something, then everything else in between was just sort of beige. Now I'm starving, what should I have to eat? A scone, perhaps? Although I probably shouldn't, because I've just put on half a stone. No, I promise you, I'm 53kg now, although of course there is always the possibility that the scales in my bathroom are wrong." 

 

If Guinness sounds too English-eccentric to be true - as her friend the French writer Bernard-Henri Lévi once told her: "You are no longer a person; you are a concept!" - she isn't. It's all in her provenance. The daughter of the brewery heir Jonathan Guinness, aka Lord Moyne, and the youngest of five, she spent part of her childhood in an artists' colony in Spain, where she used to swim in Salvador Dali's lobster-filled swimming pool; part of it in Paris, where, with her mother, the French beauty Suzanne Lisney (who died of lung cancer two years ago), she'd sit in the front row of all the couture shows; and part of it in London, where she'd spend Saturdays in the art-deco room in Biba, drinking strawberry milkshakes and developing her trademark passion for all things feathered. As the designer Valentino told American Vogue: "We joke that we can find her in London by just following the plumes scattered on the ground." 

 

"No, I promise you, I'm 53kg now, although of course there is always the possibility that the scales in my bathroom are wrong." 

 

In the early to mid-1980s, she lived in New York, where her sister Catherine Guinness was PA to Andy Warhol, and toyed with the idea of becoming an opera singer. Her friends at the time were Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the owners of Studio 54, Fred Hughes, the editor of Interview magazine, and, of course, Andy himself, although he never really said anything to her because she was always so terribly shy, sheltering herself from the world with her outrageous outfits. 

 

"That's why I could probably be quite a good actress," Guinness offers, the pair of us now in the back of her chauffeur-driven car, en route to the north London mansion she shares with her three children by her exhusband, Spyros Niarchos. "Being in disguise, assuming another role, hiding behind a costume, is so easy. Being oneself, now that's always a little more tricky, don't you think?" 

 

It was exactly 20 years ago yesterday, as Guinness volunteers, that she got married to Niarchos, son of the Greek shipping billionaire Stavros Niarchos. The couple met on a skiing trip in Switzerland and tied the knot in 1987, when Daphne was only 19. They divorced in 1999 - Daphne was reported to have got a settlement of about £20m. "Gosh, being married, that was my 'caged bird' period," she recalls as we walk through the ultra-grand hallway, past the Chapman brothers' "crucified hamburger" sculpture, past the Grayson Perry mind maps, past her precious 17th-century disembowelling prints. "One long round of boats and bodyguards and Greek islands and glitzy resorts. Not me at all. I remember, for example, going to that ghastly place in St Tropez, Cinquante Cinq, with all these people at the table eating in their bikinis and getting sprayed by those horrible hoses they've got in the canopy above, and there I was in full riding gear. Well, I didn't want to be half naked in front of all these ghastly, repulsive pink people in their horrid little floaty dresses getting sprayed with water, did I?" 

 

We are now sitting in her drawing room, an equally ornate space overlooking an outrageously large garden. It is filled with books ("Reading is my passion. I can sit for hours dissecting a book on English grammar"), overflowing arrangements of cabbage roses and more art she has either inherited or collected on the way. Above the stripy sofa, opposite one of Damien Hirst's more magnificent butterfly canvases, is a large portrait of her grandfather, the poet Bryan Guinness, and her father, Jonathan, as a baby, being carried in the arms of his mother, Diana. "You can see there's a lot going on in that picture," Guinness points out wryly. "Looks like she'd far rather be somewhere else - like in the arms of that Oswald Mosley, right?" 

 

Scattered round the room, meanwhile, are framed photographs of her and her beloved children. Here they are in Spetsopoula, the Niarchos family's private island; here they are when they lived in their grand, art-deco-appointed townhouse in New York. "It's funny, I love it here in north London, but I'm thinking of moving to a flat in town. I get so lonely when the children aren't around [the eldest is now studying comparative literature at Yale], and they're not around a lot, because they stay with their father over every single one of the holidays. Christmas is the worst. I always have to take myself off somewhere, usually to a hotel, because I worry that if I stay with friends, I might be a pain in the neck. Last year, I ended up scheduling myself a hernia operation in LA to while away the time. The thing was, it ended up being much more serious than they thought; they had to keep me in for ages, and because I had come alone, without telling anyone where I was, I had to sign in the concierge at the Beverly Hills Hotel as my own next of kin." 

 

"In a way, I love being older, much better than being in my married twenties," she continues. "The awful thing is ending up, er, alone . . ." Readers will remember the pint-sized actor Tom Hollander as her last public paramour. She says she has a very good "working relationship" with her exhusband and is categorically not seeing anybody else. 

 

While we both stare at the trampoline outside, contemplating this thought of her being 70 and alone, in walks her middle son, a modelly-looking 15-year-old, to tell his mum he just got back from the doctor and thinks he needs to be off school for a few days. Guinness's aristocratic features, simultaneously young and old for her years, are suddenly suffused with maternal pride. "Love you, darling," she calls as he ambles out of the room, and then, to me: "It's so strange being all these different things. A mother. An ex-wife. And then this, I don't know, fashion person, I suppose. In a way, what I'm trying to do, after 15 years of not really doing very much with my life, is to start anew, to reinvent myself, although not in an egotistical way. What I love doing most of all is collaborating with people" - she recently produced a film short with the fashion photographer Sean Ellis, which won an Academy Award nomination - "and being the midwife, if you like, to their brilliance. One of the nice things about having a bit of money is being able to make things happen. Not just in fashion, but in a political way. I mean, isn't that part of the social contract? Isn't that what people with money are meant to do? Bring others up rather than down, rather than hog it all for themselves? I'm sure that's what Bertrand Russell used to say. He was so clever, Bertrand Russell - funnily enough, a distant relative." 

 

Daphne insists that her driver take me home. 

 

As we drive away, I think of how her friend Amanda Harlech once described her: "She's like Tinker Bell, like thistledown or gossamer. If you hug her, she'll break in two." I think of her rattling around that great big house of hers like a tiny little pea. I hope she invests in some new scales. Fifty-three kilos? No way. 

© Christa D'Souza 1989-2020