Eight years after her death the life of celebrated British fashion stylist and muse, Isabella Blow, continues to inspire.
Her death by suicide was almost eight years ago, but Isabella Blow’s presence still looms large over the fashion industry. There have been exhibitions, documentaries, countless books, a play and a film about her life is planned. And now with the V&A’s eagerly awaited exhibition, Savage Beauty, celebrating the life of her former protégée, the late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, set to open in less than a month, the spotlight is on her life once again. So what makes Isabella Blow such a fascinating and enduring cultural figure?
A fashion leader
Born Isabella Delves Broughton in 1958 to an aristocratic family, Blow loved fashion more than life itself. Her commitment and dedication to the cause was total. She achieved notoriety for her extravagant dress sense, which consisted of wild Philip Treacy hats, bright lippie, colourful dresses, and Manolo Blahnik shoes, sometimes mismatched. But she was much more than that.
She was a stylist, fashion editor, muse, scout, collector and a nurturer of young fashion and design talent, but above all else she was a fashion ambassador, and champion, and a staunch believer in the ability of fashion to shape wider aesthetics.
Isabella began her fashion career in New York in the 1980s working for US Vogue as an assistant for Anne Wintour. She became a feature on the New York party scene, and formed relationships with prominent artists such as Jean-Michael Basquiat, Roy Lichenstein and Andy Warhol.
She made her mark on the world of fashion when she returned to London working for Tatler and British Vogue. Blow was at the epicentre of Britain’s then creative and cultural renaissance. But she was no bystander, she was a ring leader. Pulling people together, opening doors and spotting and instigating trends and talents. She was the first to spot the talents of leading British designers Philip Treacy, Alexander McQueen, and Hussein Chalayan. Blow famously bought McQueen’s entire graduate collection for £5,000, and began supporting him and his talent in any way she could. At one point early in their careers, she had both Treacy and McQueen living and working in her Belgravia home. She also had a knack for spotting supermodels, and helped launch the careers of Sophie Dahl, and Stella Tennant.
Hats, lippie and boobs
Off duty dressing never existed for Isabella. Self-presentation was always more important. So whatever the time of the day or the occasion Blow was always in her signature look. When making breakfast at her country estate, she would wear her luxurious Schiaparelli coat because of the cold. Her piece de resistance was a Philip Treacy hat perched implausibly high on her head. Blow became Philip’s unofficial muse and his designs for her were always elaborate and outrageous. She never let the unpractical nature of some of Treacy’s wackier designs get in the way. At a lunch with Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Condé Nast, she wore a pair of antlers covered in a heavy black lace veil. When he asked how she would be able to eat, she said: “Nicholas that is of no concern to me whatsoever.” As she got older her outfits became more flamboyant. She once wore a Philip Tracey jewel-encrusted lobster on her head, and on another occasion an outfit, inspired by Joan of Arc, which included a heavy, oily chain that she dragged behind her. “My Style icon”, Blow liked to say, “is anyone who makes a bloody effort.”
Blow had strong, striking looks but she never considered herself attractive. “It pains me to say so,” she once said, “but I’m ugly. I know that’s subjective, so perhaps I should say instead that I’m striking. My face is like a Plantagenet portrait.” Her inventive approach to dressing was her way of covering up what she felt she lacked in beauty. As was her vibrant red lips and habit of bearing her cleavage, of which she was infinitely proud.
A life less ordinary
Isabella lived life as exuberantly and wildly as her hats. She held legendarily raucous weekends at Hilles, the gothic Arts and Crafts mansion in Gloucestershire where she lived with her husband, Detmar Blow, which were attended by the movers and shakers of the British art and design world, and even royalty. She had a wickedly funny sense of humour and a knack for saying outrageous things. She called one of Philip Treacy’s designs ‘the multiorgasm hat’. She spoke plainly about the tight bulge in the white trousers of a Venetian gondolier she had an affair with, and on her love of breasts she once quipped: “I do just love breasts. They’re so old-fashioned.” She once wore a necklace that read BLOWJOB to a party at the home of Princess Michael of Kent.
Yet behind the laughter and wild behaviour Isabella’s life was marred with depression, tragedy and insecurity. Her infant brother had drowned in the family swimming pool. Isabella and her husband were unable to have children and would both embark on affairs. She was left just £5,000 from her father’s 7 million will, which added to her money worries. Towards the end of her life Blow felt let down by the designers that she helped to nurture, who didn’t provide her with paid for roles after they went on to become successful. In the years leading up to Blow’s death in 2007 she attempted suicide numerous times, once shattering both her ankles after jumping from the Hammersmith flyover. In the end she died in hospital on May 7 2007 after drinking the weed killer Paraquat. At her funeral, her friend, the actor Rupert Everett, described her as “a one-off … your own creation in a world of copycats.” Isabella lived a life less ordinary.