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Friday Fierceness: Isabella Blow | Manolo for the Big Girl

Friday Fierceness: Isabella Blow

Isabella Blow was a genius, and she got screwed.

her signature slash of red inspired MAC to create a color called Isabella

La Blow, former Tatler editor, muse, star-finder and influence-wielder would have turned 51 yesterday, and her tragic story was fashion legend even before it ended with her death-by-weed-killer in March, 2007.

She was not a pretty girl.

No true fashion visionaries are traditionally beautiful (Miuccia Prada, Diana Vreeland, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, etc), she had a weak chin, droopy eyes and perhaps the most painfully British set of teeth to be found outside the Royal Family.
In one of her more tame chapeaux

But she had an eye.

BOY did she have an eye and she decided to follow Oscar Wilde’s commandment: if she could not BE a work of art, then at least she would wear them.

Thus created was the woman Lady Gaga wishes she could be.

She was an Evelyn Waugh character come to life: high born, brilliant and hopelessly self-destructive.  Blow left England in 1979 and wound up in New York, working as Anna Wintour’s assistant (the Devil may wear Prada, but the Assistant discovered McQueen) and then for André Leon Talley.

an homage to the Dali/Schaipirelli "Lobster Dress"

She returned to London to work for Tatler, which is like American Vogue but smart and interesting, first as an assistant and then as its Fashion Director. She also bounced around the rest of Conde Nast and did a stint as the Sunday Times Style section (London, not New York).yet another Elsa Schiapirelli homage

During that time she developed her relationship with boy-genius milliner Philip Treacy and became his muse, constantly daring him to create a hat she would not wear (as noted above, lobsters were not a barrier to millinery).

She discovered straight-then plus-then straight-sized model Sophie Dahl (Granddaughter of Roald, which explains why the heroine of The BFG was named Sophie), Stella Tennant and perhaps most legendarily, discovered Alexander McQueen when she bought young Lee”s entire student collection for ₤5,000 –paid for in ₤100/wk allotments as she couldn’t afford it all in one go– in 1992.

one of Treacy's more intricate works

Her personal life was not a happy one.

Disinherited by her father in the early 90’s she was married briefly in the 80’s and then joined her lot with Detmar Blow in 1989. Their marriage was not a success as Isabella battled with depression and could not conceive a child. Detmar, needing to carry on the family name in order not to lose the familial manse designed by his muckety muck architect ancestor (also a Detmar Blow) temporarily left Isabella when her I.V.F. didn’t work so he could knock up some girl.  Charming, no?

Recalling Avedon

As Isabella continued to suffer from depression and a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, the people she discovered and nurtured –particularly McQueen– were moving onwards and upwards.

Her friend Daphne Guinness said “She was upset that McQueen didn’t take her along when he sold his brand to Gucci. Once the deals started happening, she fell by the wayside. Everybody else got contracts, and she got a free dress” which was especially hurtful as Blow was cripplingly low on cash and was rumored to have personally negotiated the Gucci deal.
Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChappelle
Blow tried several creative attempts at suicide, finally succeeding by drinking Paraquat in the bathroom of the family manse her husband had left her to save.

Blow’s memorial service was, as you’d imagine, well-attended and there has been a great deal of guilt –both public and private– about her treatment by her fashion friends and colleagues. Read Simon Doonan’s self-punishing recollection –published shortly after her death– here.
McQueen's Homage to Isabella S/S 2007

As a personal note, I wept when I saw Alexander McQueen’s S/S 2008 show, an homage to Isabella chock-full of Philip Treacy confections (including a quivering mob of feather butterflies which I came up with for a Halloween costume in 2001. I have proof.)

Isabella Blow did not have a happy ending, nor indeed a happy middle or beginning, but she was one of the few great characters of the post-couture era and her eccentricity has inspired a new generation of  fashion daredevils.  Have a great weekend, and wherever you’re going, put on a hat. Do it for La Blow.

13 Responses to “Friday Fierceness: Isabella Blow”

  1. Chiken November 20, 2009 at 6:05 pm #

    I adore this blog! I adore Plumcake! I really do. But I have to say this: the frequent references to women being “high born” or of good “breeding” and the statements that “we have people” to do the cleaning, etc., are not charming.

  2. Plumcake November 20, 2009 at 6:23 pm #

    The definition of high born is being born of noble birth. Isabella Blow’s father was a Baronet (12th Broughton Baronet). She was –regardless of its charm– high born.

  3. Alexandra November 20, 2009 at 6:29 pm #

    Plumcake, you are the ultimate in fab for posting this – Isabella Blow is totally my fashion muse.

  4. Lisa November 20, 2009 at 6:40 pm #

    The reference to Waugh here makes perfect sense in Blow’s context; my mother was one of those people who cleaned for a living and I don’t actually mind most class references as long as there isn’t sugar-coating. Personal preference. Fashion and elitism are bedfellows, and it’s hard to pull them apart in any meaningful ways. Blow came from old money and that money didn’t treat her all that well, nor did the tradition she married into, which in some respects embodies for me the tension between tradition and innovation on the fashion stage.

    I disagree a bit with the characterization of Blow as not a pretty girl, per se. I get what you mean, but I found her quite pretty. Not classically, but that mouth was incredible. A set of lips to die for, and something special in her eyes, which were large. I think you need a good mouth to carry off most hats, actually.

    I put on a leopard print turban and Dior’s “pink lust” lipstick in Blow’s honor.

  5. Plumcake November 20, 2009 at 6:55 pm #

    See I think Blow was like Bette Davis, more striking than pretty. Pretty is overrated. Striking lasts. Also, please provide me with your home address as I have plans to snatch that turban off your head.

  6. Margo November 20, 2009 at 6:58 pm #

    Thank you for featuring Isabella, I cried all over Rachel Cooke’s obituary/interview with Detmar in the days after her death. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2007/may/13/fashion.features10

    I have a hate/hate relationship with high fashion mags, but Blow was such a multicoloured hurricane, I admired her. She even made a Trivial Pursuit question for the lobster hat – true infamy. My mum & I went to see the ‘When Philip Met Isabella’ exhibition twice when it toured NZ, just after her death, and it was a joy and privilege to see that work up close.

  7. Plumcake November 20, 2009 at 7:05 pm #

    Isn’t that a beautiful tribute? So tender.

  8. klee November 20, 2009 at 8:20 pm #

    Brava, Plumcake! A wonderful dedication to a unique and fabulous personage.

  9. La BellaDonna November 21, 2009 at 12:12 pm #

    Yeah, I note that Detmar Blow didn’t mention his LEAVING HER as perhaps factoring into Why Izzy Was Depressed, or Why Izzy Wouldn’t Take Me Back.

  10. Lisa November 21, 2009 at 1:30 pm #

    On yet another note, I’m thinking I would kill for that dress she is wearing in the photo after the lobster (which is where I personally would have drawn the line, which is why I am nobody’s muse. Sad, that.) Anybody know anything about that dress? I probably couldn’t actually wear it due to both size and coloring, but dang I’m loving on that thing.

  11. Lisa November 21, 2009 at 1:32 pm #

    and yes, striking is the mot juste.

  12. raincoaster November 25, 2009 at 4:47 am #

    I actually have the edition of Tatler with her wedding pix in it. She was awesome, and I loved McQueen until he proved himself a cad/strongerword by dumping the woman who’d made him a star and who’d never lost faith in him.

  13. Optician May 18, 2010 at 6:14 am #

    Excellent job.