A muse at the museum

There have been many museum exhibitions about great fashion designers, from Yves Saint Laurent to the recent record-breaking Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But there have been surprisingly few about the women who have made the designers’ clothes come alive – and sometimes, in the process, created unique styles of their own.

As director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, I decided to do something about this in the form of an exhibition about Daphne Guinness, the heiress, fashion icon and patron to various designers. By focusing on one person – and a living person – the show could go into greater depth than a group show, demonstrating how fashion can shape real life and vice versa.

Daphne is an extraordinary vehicle to use to make this point, as she is fearless about wearing the most extreme clothes and shoes; it’s impossible not to notice her or the role clothes play in her world. And though she is not the first woman of style to have been honoured with an exhibition – Mona Bismarck’s Balenciagas were the subject of a small but beautiful show in Paris in 2006; Nan Kempner’s relaxed approach to couture was on display at the Met also that year – she is a rare contemporary subject, relevant not as a piece of social history but as a current force.

So two years ago I asked Daphne if she would consider co-curating an exhibition with me. At first she was reluctant but eventually I convinced her that the students at the FIT, and many others, would benefit from the opportunity to see her collection and to share her passion. I wanted to collaborate closely with her, so that her view of fashion would be central. Together with senior curator Fred Dennis, we chose 100 extra­ordinary garments and accessories by the greatest designers from her wardrobe, including Alaia, Chanel, Dior and Valentino.

'Daphne Guinness in Water'

Initially, we focused on the most striking pieces, clothes that would have real impact – an amazing silhouette or technical tour-de-force. But then we began looking more at pieces that had personal significance for Daphne: for example, clothes that she had worn on particular occasions.

After much thought, we decided not to include the collection of dresses once owned by the late designer Isabella Blow, because Daphne had bought that to preserve it as a memorial to her friend, not to wear. And I felt strongly that the clothes should be grouped not by designer but, rather, according to aspects of Daphne’s own aesthetic. Thus there is an entire platform devoted to dandyism, because Daphne loves men’s tailoring and white shirts. I asked her to style every coat and jacket herself, with exactly the right shirt, leggings or trousers, hat, shoes and jewellery. (I had to insist that we use costume jewellery, not real diamonds, which she usually wears, for insurance purposes.) Another platform is devoted to fashion inspired by armour, because Daphne loves its silver sheen and protective qualities, including an amazing silver Gareth Pugh dress and cape.

“I’m like a magpie – I love everything that sparkles,” Daphne told me. So we did a section with lots of sequins and beads and feathers. Many people erroneously assume that Daphne only wears wild and crazy clothes but much of her wardrobe is devoted to her love of strict, fitted dresses and suits – “structure with a bit of chaos” – so two areas focus on chic. And there had to be a platform for her love of the exotic, epitomised by some of her otherworldly McQueens.

She first met McQueen when he was at Givenchy, in the late 1990s. He came up to her on the street and said, “That’s the coat I made. My God! You bought that!” She still wears this exotic coat with the dragon on the back. But Daphne also supports this generation’s edgy, young designers, such as Gareth Pugh, whose futuristic, body-conscious clothes, I believe, are the most exciting styles to have come out of Britain in years. “He has a vision of his own. He is not just referencing the past” she says.

Daphne is one of the few celebrities who buys her clothes instead of borrowing them, whether it’s the work of avant-garde shoe designer Noritaka Tatehana (she owns six pairs of his vertiginous heel-less platform shoes, made entirely by hand) or Hogan McLaughlin’s body-revealing cat suits and spiky silver shoes.

Daphne’s sense of individuality, often incorrectly described as eccentricity, is central to her aesthetic. In a fashion world that has become ever more conformist, Daphne flies the flag for individuality and encourages each of us to find our own personal style. That’s the message I wanted our exhibition to convey.

‘Daphne Guinness’ is at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York until January 7 2012; www.FITNYC.edu

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