Isabella Blow was a genius, and she got screwed.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.