NEW YORK – Daphne Guinness loves to collaborate. “I’ve always got an idea hanging around,” says the avant-garde and ostensibly fearless artist, musician and muse, who splits her time between New York and London. “I always take it to the very limits of what’s possible.” This boundless energy and bold ambition is encapsulated in ‘Contra Mundum,’ a white-gold glove that was conceived by Guinness and her close friends, jewellery designer Shaun Leane and the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Made over a period of four years, the bespoke creation took four goldsmiths, 21 fittings and 4,290 diamonds. The one-of-a-kind work of art comes directly from Guinness’s personal collection and is a major highlight of Couture Fashion Jewellery: The Personal Archive of Shaun Leane, which takes place during A Life of Luxury, a week-long series of sales at Sotheby’s this December. Ahead of the auction, Guinness opened up about her poetical nature and why the glove remains a dazzling symbol of her dear friendship with Leane and McQueen.
DAPHNE GUINNESS WEARING CONTRA MUNDUM, AS PHOTOGRAPHED BY NICK KNIGHT.
Where did Shaun’s, Isabella Blow’s, Alexander McQueen’s and your collective creative legacy begin?
I was friends with [fashion editor] Isabella since childhood. Around 2001, she took me to Shaun’s studio. A year or so later I met Alexander. I was just walking around Leicester Square wearing something that he made, and he came up to me and said, ‘I made that kimono.’ I said, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re Alexander.’ He said, ‘I hear you don’t want to meet me.’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m far too shy.’ We all became very good friends and somewhat inseparable.
You’ve long been a fan of Shaun’s work. In your opinion, what is his unique gift?
His sense of balance and his ability to draw from tribalism and modernity. His works are sympathetic to the wearer. They have two sides: the inner vulnerability and the outer warrior.
. ESTIMATE $300,000–400,000. PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIAN CASSADY.
Given your status as an intrepid style icon, some people might be surprised to learn you are quite shy. Would you say you use clothing as a form of disguise and defense?
Definitely. A lot of the most sensitive people you will ever meet are punks. The ones with the most piercings and extreme hairstyles are often the sweetest.
How do you define your fashion sensibility?
I’ve never not just been myself. If I boiled it down to one thing, I’d say I’m a poet. Art to me is not really what you see on the wall or what’s in a gallery. Life is a work of art in itself. I find it very difficult to get attached to something if it’s purely for the idea of commerce. There has to be some inner meaning. I’ve got quite a good sense of humour, and I’m always looking for the irony or the joke in something. I like to hide meanings in what I do, and I put my soul into everything. People like Shaun, Alexander, David Lachapelle, Steven Klein, Steven Meisel, they recognise in me someone who is vulnerable yet brave.
"It’s the most romantic idea, being able to transform things. You work on something for ages and then just blow it up."
What inspired you to work with Shaun on Contra Mundum?
I am obsessed with armoury, and I’m always at The Wallace Collection. One time Shaun, Alexander and I were at this V&A exhibition, and none of us were entirely comfortable being in the middle of a crowd. It was one of those massive fashion fiestas, and we just wanted to hang with our crew. I said to Shaun I need something to protect me. I thought about designing armour where I would be completely encased, but we didn’t get that far. Alexander was very much up for the whole plan, and he was going to do a dress for the glove. He and Isabella died during the time we were working on it, but Alexander had made two or three sketches for the dress. He also made a couple of adjustments to the glove.
Can you explain the significance behind the concept of the birds encircling the glove?
Alexander and Shaun were obsessed with the idea of birds flocking together in the sky as a form of defense from predators. It’s a big part of their imagery. The idea to use them on the glove to protect me made perfect sense. I thought it was a beautiful and poetic metaphor.
LEANE AND GUINNESS AT A 2011 PARTY HOSTED BY JAY JOPLING TO CELEBRATE THE COMPLETION OF CONTRA MUNDUM. FOR THE OCCASION, GUINNESS WORE A CATSUIT MCQUEEN MADE HER. SHE SOUGHT TO RESEMBLE A SLEEPING KNIGHT WHO COULD APPEAR DEAD OR READY TO FIGHT. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE M. BENETT/GETTY IMAGES.
Following the death of your two friends, how did you find the strength to keep pushing and see the project through?
I thought, everything is getting so dark, so let’s try to make something good out of this. When there’s a hole that’s blown in your life like that, the temptation is to just give up. Being together and remembering things with Shaun was a form of healing. The glove became about carrying on. It was built out of a lot of love. On a few of the birds, there were some bigger diamonds that I had already owned, so there were little pieces of my history embedded in the whole thing. The glove is quite far out. It’s absolutely beautiful.
At one point I said to Shaun, ‘Now we’ve done the glove, let’s melt it down on film and do another.’ Shaun said, ‘No, no, no!’ It’s like I had this tremendous idea of making an album that would completely destroy itself after the first hearing. My team thought that was the most ridiculous thing they’ve ever heard, but I thought, it’s brilliant, it’s the most romantic idea, being able to transform things. You work on something for ages and then just blow it up. It’s to keep the energy moving. You’re here one minute and gone the next, and there’s so much to explore.
SOME OF DAPHNE’S FAVOURITE PIECES IN THE AUCTION INCLUDED THE COILED CORSET, WHICH SHE CALLED “A WORK OF CONTEMPORARY ART.” SHE ALSO LOVES THE WILDNESS OF THE CROWN OF THORNS, AS WELL AS THE SILVER ‘JOAN’ HEADDRESS.
Given the glove is imbued with emotional memories, how were you able to part with it?
It was quite a difficult decision, but it was the right one. Shaun came to me with the idea, and it just sounded right – definitely better than my idea of melting it down. It’s not really saying goodbye because the glove will have another life, and it’s actually good to make the space to create something else.
Whether it be the glove or other accessories, what is it like to wear Shaun’s pieces?
There’s a feeling of being amplified. You’re augmented in the right sense of the word. It is empowering, and I also feel he’s with me. He’s my great friend, and it’s lovely to know I’ve got something of his on me, protecting me like an amulet.