Music was my reaction to grief.” So speaks Daphne Guinness, doyenne of British fashion, on a rainy afternoon in Abbey Road Studios, home to the UK’s music industry for close to a century — and now to her too.
Guinness started recording music after her brother Jasper, a horticulturalist, died of cancer in 2011. She found herself in Ireland, cut off from everyone. She poured out poetry and songs that would form the basis for her 2016 debut, Optimist, in Black. “I’ve never stopped since,” she says. Her new album, Sleep, is out in November. It’s her most ambitious work so far: a capacious collection with songs about time, Japan and Russia. “Written before the invasion,” she clarifies. “There have been hundreds of people involved.” Guinness has never been one for minimalism — she is known to throw on Maison Margiela the way another person might slip into Adidas.
Today is no exception. Wearing black leather trousers and a white shirt with a fanned collar, draped in silver pendants, she has coiffed her hair into a beehive and adorned it with jewels. Her shoes are the trademark hooves: heels without a heel. “I’m double-jointed,” she says. “It’s not a fashion statement. It’s an orthopaedic necessity.”
Guinness is svelte and siren-like, her intense brown eyes tilting cattishly upwards. Over the years, she has captivated the hearts and minds of many illustrious figures, playing muse to Karl Lagerfeld; designing for Comme des Garçons; playing Jean Seberg in a Joe Lally film and dating Bernard Henri-Levy, France’s most famous (and married) public intellectual. A key focus of London’s fashion intelligentsia during its avant-garde heyday, Guinness counted among her dearest friends the magazine editor Isabella Blow, and her protégé Alexander McQueen. That was before they took their own lives, she in 2007 and he in 2010. Her paranoia only grew when her brother passed away soon after. She once said of that time in her life that she felt like she had a target on her back.
She translated a childhood incident where she was almost murdered into song, which felt like “an exorcism”
But music has seen her through to the other side: more so than fashion, this is her north star. “I started singing professionally because it’s the only thing I really knew how to do,” Guinness says. She hated school but her teachers recognised her vocal talent and pushed her to pursue it. “I have a perfect pitch,” she says, crediting an isolated childhood between family homes in England and Ireland (“a chapel on top of a hill”) with inspiring her to sing wherever she went. “I’d sing to the trees,” she says. “I’m able to hear sounds in all places.”
Guinness is classically trained, a quality that comes across not only in her orchestral arrangements but in her lyrical declamation. She pronounces “through” with Shakespearean precision and says the word “about” with an inflection that makes it sound as though it should be spelled without an “O”.
But Guinness is too gentle to be pretentious. When she waxes lyrical about Byron or Tchaikovsky, it comes across as genuine — even innocent. “I’ve always been a bit of a misfit,” she says.
She has set up her new studio in a disused office overlooking the famous street in NW8. The room is muted with sleek, dark walls, and soundproofed with a multifunctional door handle —which, she and I fear, looks eerily like one that might be found in a submarine (We meet two days after the OceanGate disaster, and it’s clearly on our minds).
A privileged postcode should come as no surprise: she is a Guinness, after all. It is easy, in an era littered with undeserving nepo babies, to think of her as the torchbearer of an unfortunate trend. But beyond her family fortune and $39 million divorce settlement she reached after leaving Greek magnate Spyros Niarchos in 1999, Guinness is a true artist, in every sense.
For a long time, though, the music establishment was hostile towards her. “I was shellshocked by how mean people were,” she confesses. Some wounds have yet to heal, and it is not something she wishes to go into at length. After early setbacks, it is something of an irony that the man who took a chance on Guinness would turn out to be one of music’s heroes. Guinness met David Bowie over a lunch at Barneys, organised to celebrate the launch of a make-up line by his wife, Iman.
“We were seated next to each other, and we had a really funny time,” Guinness tells me. After a brief pause, she adds: “It was the funniest lunch I’ve ever had.” Bowie introduced the singer to Tony Visconti, the man behind his greatest hits since 1968 and who would later become her producer.
Guinness’s eyes twinkle as she remembers her old mentor, whose reference points have found echoes in her own work: character play, surrealist imagery, Romantic digressions. “You’ve gone a bit Tennyson,” Bowie used to tell her whenever she lost the plot.
Guinness’s style — both sartorial and musical — has been indelibly shaped by access to people like Bowie. Even pre-fashion fame, her life read like a surrealist fever dream. Growing up, she spent most of her summers at Salvador Dali’s villa, where he kept lobsters in his swimming pool. “I caught the last gasp of surrealism,” she says, with a silent grin hinting at the decadence of those formative years.
Her new album is largely inspired by the surrealist movement’s obsessions. “It’s also about my observations of the world,” she says. “But there’s something Dali-esque about it.” The first single, Hip Neck Spine, is a deliciously camp electro romp; the video cements her image as a couturière-cum-chanteuse. It unfolds like a hypnotic reverie.
I first met David Bowie when I was seated next to him at Barneys – I think it was the funniest lunch I’ve ever had
The album, she says, is one of her most autobiographical to date. On a track called Solitaire, she revisits a childhood incident when she was nearly murdered by a schizophrenic family friend. Tony Baekeland, then 25, took Guinness, five, out of the nursery in her home in Kensington, with a knife to her throat, shouting “death to all women”. She was rescued by her housekeeper, but the assailant escaped. He murdered his own mother two days later.
Translating her trauma into song, Guinness says, felt like “an exorcism”. As we listen on full volume, she closes her eyes introspectively. Her trancelike state is tranquil but highly emotive. “It’s almost ready,” she says.
Despite the track’s bleakness, Guinness is resoundingly upbeat. Her voice is timid until she laughs — cackles, really — and happiness echoes against the four corners of the room. Sleep is also something she has been chasing for some time. “I didn’t sleep well for about a decade,” she explains, nodding to workaholic tendencies. Though music provided an outlet for her grief, it’s also become an object of perfectionist revisionism. “I struggle to let go,” she tells me. She’s already dreading its release, “because it means it’s over”.
The discipline she applies to her craft is not one she applies to sleep: she cannot seem to find a routine and stick to it. Like most workaholics, she is neither a morning person nor a night owl, because she never switches off entirely. She does her best to keep a dream journal, though. “I have a weird ability to predict things,” she says.
One thing has taken her by surprise, however: in the past few years, she has become a hit on TikTok. “That happened completely by mistake, as ever,” she laughs. Her style and eccentricities have proven to be catnip to the drag community in particular. Like Moira Rose, the Schitt’s Creek matriarch inspired by Guinness and who uses words like “bedevilled” and “peregrination”, the singer thrives on self-caricature. Of A Met Gala stint in 2011 where she performed atop a table in the window at Barneys in homage to Alexander McQueen, she shrugs: “I think the message was lost on most.”
“I’ve never had a good idea in front of corporate people,” she adds modestly. Or perhaps she is just ahead of her time. “I’m always on the edge of something,” she says, careful not to use the word avant-garde — though she has earned the right to. Later on, she lets her guard down a little more. “I guess I’m the last surrealist,” she deadpans.
Although Guinness has spoken about politics in the past (mainly to disavow the beliefs of Oswald Mosley, her step-grandfather and founder of the British Union of Fascists), she is reticent to discuss this today. “I’m apolitical,” she says. “I have a massive distrust of people who want power.” It is a crowded market for political complaint where the ruling party is facing woes on all fronts. Guinness knows there is nothing to be gained from weighing in on such a mess — she’s far too chic for it.
What she is keen to talk about is music; not just her own, but Britain’s more widely. We’re in the best place for it here at Abbey Road, and as Guinness takes me on a tour I get the sense that she’s keen to see her name and photograph next to Lennon and McCartney’s.
We end our chat in Studio Two, where The Beatles recorded Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s and The White Album. Guinness talks me through the instruments and equipment, still laid out exactly as the Fab Four used them. This, you can tell, is more exciting to her than any museum — or indeed any Met Gala. After pulling her back from lowest lows, music may be just the thing that makes Guinness an icon for the ages.
Daphne Guinness’ new single, Hip Neck Spine, is out now