A 26-letter guide devoted to the late and unforgettable icon Isabella Blow
Few would dare perform a striptease at a friend’s funeral, let alone at Andy Warhol’s. Except for Isabella Blow who knew her friend would appreciate the gesture. Whether it was introducing nipples to the pages of Tatler or idolising a grandmother who ate human flesh; Blow dedicated her life to the ideas and the people who inspired her. As Fashion Galore!, a retrospective of her life and wardrobe, prepares to launch at Somerset House we’ve put together a Da-Zed guide of everything that made her so unique.
A IS FOR ARABIAN ADVENTURES
Blow loved visiting India and the Middle East, she would often retreat to these regions for rejuvenation and fresh ideas. Once announcing to Philip Treacy: “I’m potentially going to be the Elsa Klensch of al-Qaeda!” To which Treacy said, “You must be crazy, you can’t go around saying that. And you mean Al Jazeera, not al-Qaeda!” In 2007, she was to begin work on a series of books titled Arabian Beauty, focusing on fashion in the Middle East, when she felt like England didn’t quite seem like home anymore. The series never published.
B IS FOR "BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE"
This iconic portrait of Isabella Blow and Lee McQueen by David LaChapelle is an embodiment of their now-legendary symbiotic relationship: one that was nurturing and wildly creative but also prophetically explosive and tragic. It shows McQueen at 27, torch-bearing and newly hired at Givenchy. Both McQueen and Blow wear his designs with Philip Treacy hats. This is the first LaChapelle print to enter the National Portrait Gallery, and was originally published in a 1997 issue of Vanity Fair.
C IS FOR COMPETITIVE SPIRIT
Issie idolised her paternal grandmother, Lady Vera, the fearless woman explorer who sailed the world and (unknowingly) ate human flesh. She also once held the record for the biggest tuna caught. With grandmother Vera setting the standard in a family of highly powered women, it seems natural that Blow would want to imitate this scale of ambition. Through her influence both explicit and implicit in the fashion realm, her achievements might just be on par. After all, she caught this generation’s biggest fish long before anyone else did: Lee McQueen.
D IS FOR DAPHNE GUINNESS
Blow’s longtime friend and heiress Daphne Guinness shocked the industry in 2010 when she ended Christie’s auction of Blow’s wardrobe, which included over 90 McQueen dresses, 50 Treacy hats and portraits of Blow by Mario Testino and Karl Lagerfeld, by buying the entire lot. The collection will be shown in the upcoming Somerset House exhibition. Since, she has also founded the Isabella Blow Foundation, a charity that seeks to honour the memory of Blow by supporting aspiring art and fashion students and research into the fields of mental health.
E IS FOR 67 Elizabeth Street
Blow's home in Belgravia goes down in history for being the studio that supported Treacy and McQueen at the beginning of their careers; at one point, Treacy was on the first floor and McQueen on the ground.
F IS FOR “FASHION IS ABOUT EMOTION”
Blow on fashion: “Women love clothes because they mean something to them – the day you met the man you love, the day you got married, what you did before you made love to somebody. It’s psychological and tied to the spirit of woman.”
G IS FOR GIFT OF THE GAB
People enjoyed being around Issie as she was never short of a witty quip, filthy joke or colourful anecdote. Her family motto, “Haud muto factum” or "Nothing happens by being mute", may have to do with this galvanising communicative spirit. The brain and the mouth, she once said, are the sexiest parts of the body. “The real physical meeting of Isabella was stronger than most images she produced,” Nick Knight said.
H IS FOR HILLES HOUSE
Issie loved her Gloucestershire home, a stately Arts and Crafts house built by her husband Detmar Blow’s grandfather, a leading architect of his day. He filled the home with William Morris designs, 17th century furniture and Burne-Jones tapestries. When the Blows moved in, they created a new entrance with dovecotes; “When you arrive, you'll have this flutter of doves to welcome you,” Issie said in admiration of the romantic feature. Hilles was where McQueen would gather inspiration or retreat after a show. Blow’s Soay sheep, which inhibited the nearby fields, would also provide endless inspiration to Treacy and McQueen’s creations.
I IS FOR "I SIMPLY CAN'T LOOK AT YOU WITHOUT LIPSTICK"
The vibrant lip was always a part of Blow’s signature look, and she demanded that her assistants wear them. In 2005, she collaborated with MAC on a limited edition collection of lipsticks called Blow.
J IS FOR JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT
Lesser known was her close relationship with the young handsome and rebellious artist, whom she was introduced to by Andy Warhol in the mid 80s and soon became rather infatuated with. The three of them would hang out in Russian tea rooms eating salmon fish cakes. Basquiat would often sit by Blow’s desk at American Vogue, waiting for her to finish work. Their friendship fizzled due to his drug problems.
K IS FOR KITCHEN GODDESS
Blow loved to cook and according to her niece Harriet Verney she would make wicked potato pancakes, using Simon Hopkinson’s Roast chicken and other stories as her bible.
L IS FOR 'LA DAME BLEUE’
‘La Dame Bleue’ was the title of McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2008 show, which he collaborated on with Phillip Treacy in dedication to Issie. The show's invitations included an illustration of Blow wearing a McQueen dress in a winged carriage riding up to heaven. Treacy’s headpieces included all of her favourite motifs such as feathered creations, butterfly swarms and metal visors. The theme of birds throughout McQueen’s collection was also particularly symbolic of Isabella, not least the tailored drama that unfolded from a set featuring larger-than-life neon mechanical wings.
M IS FOR MEDIEVAL HEART
Issie’s love for the Middle Ages was evident through her audacious, historic style – the low necklines, extravagant headwear and curvaceous silhouettes. At her wedding to Detmar Blow, she wore a gold-lace headdress over a flesh-colored wimple with a purple velvet medieval robe covered in embroidered necklaces. Her cousin Orlando Fraser once described Issie as having a “medieval heart – bold and haughty.”
N IS FOR NIPPLES AND NUDITY
We may be blasé about nudity in fashion today yet in 2004, Blow, as Tatler’s fashion director, noticed that nipples had never been shown in the society magazine. In typical anarchic fashion, she ordered a shoot to take place in Naples (“Naples rhymes with nipples,” she quipped) where the concept was that a nipple had to be seen in every shot. For the opening spread, Blow, together with her assistant and the models, popped out a breast. Blow might have thought her face was ugly, but she was always completely at ease with her body, as a fellow Oxford classmate Adam Boulton once recalled, “Isabella always wore cocktail dresses. She’d come into the drawing rooms, wiggle her hips and lift her skirt. The only issue was whether she was wearing underwear or not.”
O IS FOR OFF-DUTY LOOK
What one would call an ‘off-duty’ look didn’t exist in Issie’s vocabulary. When making breakfast at Hilles, she’d wear her Schiaparelli fur coat because of the cold. Visit her in her Belgravia home and she’s likely in a Treacy creation, McQueen design and Blahnik heels. Even when hospitalised, she would forgo the hospital gown, and chose to wear a scratchy 30s silver lamé dress on the day she passed.
P IS FOR “PIG SNIFFLING OUT TRUFFLES”
Many may have called her the champion of new talent, yet “I’m just a pig sniffing out truffles” she would say. But she had a real eye – most famously spotting McQueen’s wonderful tailoring skills from his Central Saint Martins graduate collection. No one else could see past the blood and grime, she once said. Other successful discoveries include her life-long collaborator Phillip Treacy, models Stella Tennant and Sophie Dahl (“like a blow-up doll with brains”), and Hussein Chalayan.
Q IS FOR QUIXOTIC
Such was Blow’s relationship with fashion; practicality was never a consideration. She might have agreed with J.G. Ballard: “Fashion is a recognition that nature has endowed us with one skin too few, and that a fully sentient being should wear its nervous system externally.” Following suit, every one of Blow’s outfits was a reflection of her psychology, vision and beliefs, often revealing a struggle. The writer A.A. Gill once said: “I don’t think Issie liked getting dressed in the morning. I think she found it quite painful. She always had the sort of self-knowledge you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Most of us gloss over our lives. She had a fierce honesty about herself, and that was very, very difficult to live with.”
R IS FOR RIGBY & PELLER
Blow was a lover of woman’s curves and would often dress to accentuate her own. The queen’s corsetieres Rigby & Peller was where Blow got her signature bustiers fitted. A big supporter of theirs, she would introduce others like Tina Chow and the princess of Yugoslavia to their services, stating it is simply not like buying lingerie from Marks and Spencer. “These are couture,” she would emphasise.
S IS FOR SEAN ELLIS
Isabella’s early work with the photographer Sean Ellis for The Face continues to electrify today. Her fashion stories with Ellis shared a window to her own artistic soul. With editorials titled ‘Taste of Arsenic’ and ‘The Clinic’, the dark fantasy and beauty that flooded the pages was an extension of her personal world that everyone around her was constantly fascinated by. She often pulled her friends and relatives to model; one shoot included Lee McQueen and Jeremy Scott dressed as knights in armour.
T IS FOR TEENAGE DREAM
Blow wanted to go to art college at 17 to study history of art, but her father declined to support her, insisting that she go to secretarial college in Oxford. Her hunger for art would be evident throughout the rest of her career, as she dedicated herself to nurturing some of fashion’s greatest artists. Some years after finishing her secretarial course, she enrolled on an Ancient Chinese Art course at Columbia University, dropping out after a year of looking at Buddha’s ear lobes.
U IS FOR ULTIMATE HAT WEARER
Few people come close – the Queen, Anna Piaggi... but Isabella’s hats were always extravagant and wild, and never was the creative vision compromised for comfort or practicality. Hats were her way of protecting herself but she also enjoyed the erotic implications of hat-wearing, once quipping: “Men love hats. They love it because it's something they have to take off in order to fuck you.”
V IS FOR VELVET UNDERGROUND STRIP-TEASE
At Andy Warhol’s funeral in 1987, Issie, whose friendship with the artist began over a pair of mis-matched Manolo Blahniks, did a striptease in front of his family and friends. The Velvet Underground accompanied and Blow knew that this extravagant and litigious display would have been appreciated by her late friend.
W IS FOR 'WHITE MISCHIEF'
Issie’s lineage had its share of darkness and scandals – her grandfather, Sir John Delves Broughton, was tried for the murder of his wife’s lover Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll when he was found killed by a single bullet in his head. Broughton was acquitted but returned to his 18th century Doddington House with a scarred reputation. Shortly after, he checked into the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, where he overdosed on morphine. In 1982, James Box released a book and subsequent film White Mischief was about the incident, launching the Delves Boughton name into celebrity though Issie never outwardly carried this baggage.
X IS FOR X-RATED SENSE OF HUMOUR
Along with a hooting laughter, Issie’s bawdy humour peppered all of her stories. She never censored herself for anyone. She might tell of her personal life, speaking plainly about the tight bulge in the white trousers of a Venetian gondolier she had an affair with. Or when expressing her taste, she had said: “What I really like are girls in short clothes, very see-through, very sexy, where the man always wants to fuck her. I think it's because I was supposed to be a boy.”
Y IS FOR THE YOKE OF COMMERCIALISM AND REALITY
While Issie came from aristocratic, wealthy lineage, the burden of having little funds became in part a cause for her depression. If it wasn’t so much the money, it was what it symbolised to her, the creative, inspirational mind and catalyst for so many of her successful protégés. The line between fantasy and reality was a difficult one for her to balance. And while her discoveries had made her famous – she was never as famous, nor nearly as rich.
Z IS FOR ZERO TOLERANCE FOR BEING CALLED AN ECCENTRIC
Having unconventional tastes didn’t make Issie an eccentric – she always said she looked for fantastic skill and craftsmanship whether it was in the designers, models or artists she would support. “Eccentrics eat goldfish, and Issie was never anything like that,” Detmar Blow once explained of her distaste for the term. “Her humour and eye was eccentric, but her brain really wasn’t,” said Nicky Haslam.
November 20–March 2, Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!, Somerset House, London