The Late Isabella Blow: Fashion Icon and Trendsetter

Isabella Blow in 1997 Photo by Mario Testino / via
Isabella Blow in 1997
Photo by Mario Testino / via

London—We interrupt these columns on street fashions to write about fashions never seen on any street, unless they were scoped fleetingly as they issued from a limousine and crossed a pavement to enter an exclusive door.

Or vice versa.

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I’m talking about Isabella Blow and her wardrobe, the focus of the just-shuttered four-month exhibition at Somerset House called—straightforwardly enough for a spectacular display that was anything but straightforward—Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!

For fashions so far out on a limb that they’re already beyond the limb and floating on the breeze, you ain’t seen anything like it since the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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There’s a good reason: The late Isabella Blow (who took her life in 2007) discovered the late Alexander McQueen (who took his life in 2010) when she saw his 1994 graduation collection at Central Saint Martins and bought it for £5,000, which, since she didn’t really have the wherewithal, she paid off in £100 monthly installments.

Born into the aristocracy as Isabella Delves Broughton and a one-time assistant to Anna Wintour, Blow toiled prominently at British Vogue and Tatler, discovering talented designers besides McQueen—although she and he seemed uncannily on the same creative wavelength, on the same shock-the-bourgeoisie wavelength. Vogue contributor and man-about-cosmopolitan-towns Hamish Bowles referred to her ceaseless activity as “truffling for talent.”

Millinery by Philip Treacy
Millinery by Philip Treacy

Julien MacDonald and Hussein Chalayan were two other finds, as was Philip Treacy, whom Blow met when he was studying millinery at the Royal College of Art and whom she instantly asked to design the hat she wore when marrying Detmar Blow in 1989. (She divorced him, but they remained friends. He’s writing a book about her.) And there are the models she plucked for pages she ruled, among them Stella Tennant, who’s still on runways, and Sophie Dahl.

Blow was influential in that way. In a short video loop running on a monitor placed halfway through the exhibition, she’s seen being interviewed. The unseen interviewer mentions that everyone questioned about Blow has said he or she has been strongly influenced by her. Blow, who’s not a conventional English beauty by any means but someone who went some way towards redefining beauty, says with what might be modesty, “I’m glad to know they’re still promoting me.”

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Talent scout that she was, she was just as effective, or perhaps more so, as fashion plate. She was designed for—and McQueen was her court designer. He dedicated his career-making 1996 “Dante” collection to her. Their collaboration hardly ended there. She habitually wore his impeccably crafted clothes, often with Treacy’s impeccably crafted hats, and the wardrobe (now owned by Daphne Guinness) is what was on Somerset House view. While she championed other designers besides the ones mentioned, the McQueen and Treacy designs predominate.

An observer might ask whether Blow, who had a passion for pink, wore McQueen’s designs, or—given how astonishing they are, how sculptured, feathered, sequined, pailletted, outsized, traffic stopping—did McQueen’s designs wear her? The same thought crosses a spectator’s mind about Treacy’s hats—sculptured, feathered, beribboned, veiled, mile-high, mile-wide.

It doesn’t matter, of course. Blow was obviously enamored of the artistry achieved by McQueen, Treacy and others of her designing circle. She understood their origins. In McQueen’s case, in the undercurrents of so many of his dark designs, she probably intuited the demons driving him. She may have harbored the same gnawing monsters. She understood that his clothes weren’t so much meant to be worn as to be flaunted before the tastemakers. She knew that commercially they were extravagant loss leaders but that artistically they were visionary.

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Isabella Blow Installation
The installation at Somerset House / via

Truth is, it’s impossible to walk through the two-floor layout without being saddened that such beauty sprang from such profound emotional discontent. The thought certainly crossed my mind. Another thought did, too. Was she able to sit down in those clothes? Would it ever have crossed her mind to go to the theater in them, much less the corner supermarket?

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Just up a few stairs from the video is a room that could be considered the centerpiece of the exhibition. In it are several mannequins with likenesses of Blow’s face and wearing some of the most amazing outfits she modeled in real life. One wears a dress made from hundreds of what resemble metal shards. Another wears my favorite of the colossal Treacy hats on view—a miniature Chinese garden carved in wood.

“I really wanted to challenge that basic assumption that Isabella’s life story is dark and gothic,” the exhibition’s curator Alistair O’Neill remarked in London’s Telegraph. “It did have a dark side, but it had a light side, too. She had a filthy sense of humor—quite black, quite British.” (How that comment completely vitiates the notion of Blow’s “dark” side isn’t immediately clear.)

More a “burka” about burkas than a burka-burka
Garment by Jun Takahashi

There’s certainly one unmistakable, only in some ways subtle, example of that “quite black, quite British” humor in the show. It’s a burka designed by Jun Takahashi that Blow wore to a 2003 Christian Dior collection. It’s a filmy pink concoction with a glittery strip over the eyes that Blow presumably could see through as she circulated. Its airiness looks to be benign until a viewer realizes that the cartoon teddy bears scattered here and there on it have spikes through their heads. (Incidentally, Lady Gaga donned it for a recent Treacy catwalk show.)

Nick Knight, who photographed models in Blow’s wardrobe at Doddington, her ancestral home, for a Rizzoli coffee table volume to accompany the exhibition and who was one of her good friends, also commented in the Telegraph, “Although she ended her life, her major message is that life is full of splendid things. Her overall message about life was very positive.”

Anyone who meandered through the Somerset House gallery realizes Knight is right about the “splendid” things but maybe not exactly accurate about the “positive” slant. All that may do, though, is focus on the reality behind any fleeting fashion no matter how unreal it may seem, no matter how astonishingly beautiful and unworldly it may initially appear.

On my way out of Somerset House, I stopped at the information desk to ask a question about the exhibition’s close and talked to a fellow with an explosive puff of white hair that could have been a Treacy hat. When I asked his name, he said John and then slurred his surname in deference to Blow’s remaining the center of attention.

He said he’d known her slightly, and the manner in which he said it indicated he is and will continue as one of those people still promoting her. He also said he’d been a theater designer and that the man who trained him insisted that extraordinary things can only be produced by extraordinary people. Of course, he meant Blow and McQueen. There’s no reason to disagree with him.

So as not to abandon completely this column’s primary mission, here’s a closing word about a riveting instance of London street wear seen this past week: A young boy walking on Sloane Street with his father and his terrier was the one sporting the astounding get-up. He was wearing brown knickers with red high socks. Knickers!—and not the underwear variety, but the sporty ‘20s overwear kind. I saw nothing like it anywhere else in town. The question is: Was this a backward glimpse into an almost forgotten past or was it a vision of the future?

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