Daphne Guinness, small but lithe, with a majestic hairstyle—half-white, half-black, not so much envisioned by the stylist Yves Durif at the Carlyle as reconstituted by him when she is in New York—paces around her sunlit apartment on Fifth Avenue, keeping up a steady stream of conversation. She’s just arrived from Paris, where she sliced open her foot on a screw in a hotel room, then almost missed her plane while waiting for a photographer’s assistant to return her camera to the lobby. Also, her BlackBerry was supposed to be synced with her computer by an assistant, but instead both of them went on the fritz. “I just feel like bang, bang, bang, everything’s been going wrong lately,” she says, settling herself into a high-backed cream chair. “I’m so happy to be finally in New York, where I can relax. I love the city in August, when everyone’s away. I can take a deep breath.”
Guinness, an Irish brewery heiress and the ex-wife of a son of one of Greece’s richest shipping families, should by rights be vacationing in Southampton or Capri this month, not stewing on the asphalt in Manhattan. But she is bored by money—a great luxury. In her, as in few others, wealth has been transmogrified into a flowing, wild, slightly absurd freedom. “Sometimes I feel like I’m speaking Chinese when I go out to dinner, and everyone’s from hedge funds, and I want to talk about a certain color,” says Guinness, 42. “You know, a lot of people think they’re going to get to a nirvana of cooldom one day, but in fact that place doesn’t really exist. I think life is about having the mixture of the curiosity of an older person and the imagination of a child.”
That much is clear from her outfit today, which, as usual, is one part old-world heiress, swathed in diamonds and furs, and one part eccentric artist, always looking to create drama and irony with her clothes. She’s wearing a tight-fitting gray wool dress that she designed herself, with enormous strands of antique diamonds wrapped around her wrists, a blue grosgrain ribbon tied loosely on her neck, and eight-inch Mary Jane modified wedges designed by Londoner Natacha Marro—the modification, in this case, being the exclusion of the heel base that normally connects one’s foot with the ground, so that she floats in the air, en pointe. “I found it inconvenient to have heels at one point,” she explains drily. “These just made more sense.”
Guinness belongs to a tradition of thoroughly outré fashion fiends, like Isabella Blow—the auction of whose clothing at Christie’s she preempted last month by buying the entire collection—or the Italian avant-gardist Anna Piaggi, or kooky cult icon Iris Apfel, the 88-year-old New Yorker with the saucer-size glasses. She’s both a fabulous customer for designers, known to buy every piece in her size when she becomes enthusiastic about a collection, and also a creative force, an artist in her own right. “I think the world’s just gone completely mad, with everyone wearing the same things, even celebrities,” says Guinness, who, despite her wacky design sense, speaks softly and without bravado. “I mean, Elizabeth Taylor wouldn’t have been told by a stylist to wear this and say it’s from wherever.”
That she’s given herself over to the world of imagination is clear after spending an afternoon in her apartment, a series of hyper-designed suites with highlights of cream, red, and black that feels like being inside a fancy jewelry box. Everything the eye alights upon is perfect, from the Nobuyoshi Araki photographs to the elegant set of the Japanese game Go to the large Chinese teapot from which she slowly drinks her afternoon tea. But this is not a mausoleum of objects, the gallery of a good shopper. Guinness’s dining-room table is heaped with swatches of fabric for suits she is designing and dozens of notepads in which she plans to draw with colored pencils, as she has been doing since she was a child. In one corner rest a few bulbous rubber forms, which she has plans for this week: She’s going to insert them in some resin, which she intends to pour right here, in her living room, for a new table.
“With the resin, I don’t mind about my floors, but I’m a little worried about the neighbors,” she says, trailing a foot over the lacquered black boards beneath her. “It could be quite fumy.”
Guinness identifies her interest in eccentric fashion as part of her upbringing in the town of Cadaqués on the Spanish coast, where she spent each summer as a child in her family’s residence, an eighteenth-century former monastery. Man Ray lived close by, as did Dalí, who had lobsters swimming in his pool. “My bedroom was next to the altar, and under my bed there was supposedly the finger of Saint Sebastian, wow,” she says. It was glamorous, but in a relaxed way. “I was always scrambling around without shoes, with cuts everywhere, after getting into a hornets’ nest. Everyone wore sixties clothes. They did that thing of looking like 1967 when it was 1976, and there’s that element still.”