Remembering Isabella Blow…

A glorious exhibition showcasing the fashion diva’s collection of couture has opened at Somerset House in London today…..

Isabella Blow, 1997 (crédit: Mario Testino)

The magazine editor, stylist extraordinaire and fashion muse, Isabella Blow, was a walking work of art.  Her idiosyncratic style was beyond colourful: it was both sculptural and surreal, drawing as much on Dada and Dali as designer runways.   She is widely credited with having launched the careers of the hat designer, Philip Treacy, the couturier, (Lee) Alexander McQueen, and the models, Stella Tennant and Sophie Dahl, whom she described, with characteristic wit, as “a blow up doll with brains.” Her death in 2007 was as flamboyant as her life had been; she killed herself by drinking weed killer at a weekend house party. She was 48.  

There had been many previous attempts to end her own life; an overdose on a beach in India, a deliberate car crash, a leap from a bridge.  She was not going to shuffle off this mortal coil quietly.  At her funeral, her great friend, the actor Rupert Everett, read the eulogy and eloquently expressed the paradox of her death:  “For someone who was suicidal, she was constantly dazzled by life and life was dazzled by her”, he said.  “You were a one-off, a genius friend, your own creation in a world of copycats and I will miss you for the rest of my life”.

Fashion Galore!

The heiress and avant garde fashionista, Daphne Guinness, has been the driving force behind Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!, the show at Somerset House.  She and Isabella became friends in 1998.  After her death, an auction at Christies of Isabella’s clothes was planned, but cancelled, after Daphne stepped in and bought the entire lot.  “The planned sale at Christies”, she said, “could only result in carnage, as souvenir seekers plundered the incredible body of work Issie had created over her life.  Indeed in many ways, the auction would not merely be a sale of clothes; it would be a sale of what was left of Issie, and the carrion crows would gather and take away her essence forever”.  

Guinness then created a charity, the Isabella Blow Foundation, which supports research into mental illness and nurtures emerging talent in art and fashion.  Isabella would surely have approved.  The collection on display at Somerset House includes work by many of the designers she encouraged and so brilliantly promoted: Hussein Chalayan, Julien MacDonald, Treacy and McQueen.

Design by Alexander McQueen, Manolo Blahnik, Philip Treacy - Selected from the personal collection of the late British patron of fashion and art (credit: Peter McDiarmid / Getty Images for Somerset House)

Anglo Saxon Attitude

Born into an aristocratic family in 1958, Isabella Blow seemed to epitomise English upper class eccentricity.  She was famous for her witty hauteur.  “I wear hats”, she said, “to keep everyone away from me.  They say, ‘Oh, can I kiss you?’  I say, ‘No, thank you very much.  That’s why I’ve worn the hat.  Goodbye.’  I don’t want to be kissed by all and sundry.  I want to be kissed by the people I love.”  

She began her fashion career in America, working in Texas for Guy Laroche and then in New York, as assistant to Anna Wintour, the fashion director of US Vogue.  She cut a dash in the New York art world, and was befriended by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.

She returned to London in 1986 and began working as a stylist on Tatler and the Sunday Times Style Magazine. In 1989, she married her second husband, the art dealer Detmar Hamilton Blow, and commissioned Philip Treacy to make her head dress, thus launching their celebrated fashion collaboration and friendship.

Babes in London

One of the defining moments in Isabella Blow’s fashion career was “Babes in London”, a collaboration with the photographer, Steven Meisel, for British Vogue, which featured moody black and white portraits of a bevy of upper class beauties, including Stella Tennant, Plum Sykes, Bella Freud and Honor Fraser. If it was a reminder that the British class system was still very strongly in existence, it was an ironic comment. Despite her aristocratic background, Isabella was no snob:  many of the artists and designers she befriended, like the flamboyantly Cockney Lee McQueen, (son of a cab driver), came from backgrounds that were decidedly modest.

Moreover, Isabella was disenfranchised; her father, Major Sir Evelyn Delves Broughton held her in disdain and all but disinherited her.  He left her £5,000 out of an estate that was reportedly worth more than one million.  She said that she felt unable to “find a home in a world she influenced”. Worries about money contributed to Isabella’s depression leading up to her death.  

It has been said that she felt betrayed by Lee McQueen after he became wealthy and successful.  “She was upset that Alexander McQueen didn’t take her along when he sold his brand to Gucci”, said Daphne Guinness, “Once the deals started happening, she fell by the wayside.  Everybody else got contracts, and she got a free dress”.  In fact, McQueen was distraught when she finally succeeded in taking her own life in 2007.  He helped to dress her body and she was buried in one of his creations, a red and gold brocade gown.  Philip Treacy made a hat in the shape of a black galleon, which adorned her coffin.  Sadly, three years later, McQueen also committed suicide.


Bonkers and brilliant, Blow’s influence on fashion has continued to be formidable since her death. Lady Gaga’s image owes much to Lady Isabella, as she acknowledged in a 2010 interview with American Vogue:

The fashion community in general got me much earlier than everyone else.  But actually, I felt truly embraced by this London cultural movement, the McQueen, Isabella (Blow), Daphne Guinness wing of the English crowd”, said Gaga, “I remember when I first started doing photo shoots, people would look at me and say, ‘My God, you look so much like Isabella Blow, it scares me’.  And McQueen used to say, ‘Oh my God, your boobs! He actually grabbed them and said, ‘Even your boobs are like hers!’

The Somerset House exhibition is a joyous celebration of Isabella Blow’s life and her continuing creative legacy.  “Fashion is vampiric”, she once said, “It’s the hoover on the brain”.  It’s a striking paradox, for if putting her style together was draining for her, it was life enhancing and inspiring for the rest of us, her enthralled audience. She was more than a fashion diva, she was a performance artist. As Daphne Guinness says in her introduction to Fashion Galore!, “This exhibition is, to me, a bittersweet event.  Isabella Blow made our world more vivid, trailing colour with every pace she took.  It is a sorrier place for her absence”.  

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! continues at Somerset House until 2nd March 2014.  

by Susan Shaw for JOL Press