Summing up the aristocratic Blow in just one sentence is virtually impossible. She was a ground-breaking style editor certainly, cutting her teeth as Anna Wintour’s assistant at American Vogue, before moving back to England to work on Tatler, The Sunday Times Style and British Vogue. She is well known for launching the careers of British models Stella Tennant and Sophie Dahl, and for creating highly provocative shoots in the late 90s with globally revered photographers David LaChapelle and Steven Meisel.
But more than her styling work, it was a ferocious championing of fledgling design talent that made the real impact on the London scene. Her creative nurturing and almost obsessive support of young designers – once she found someone she loved, she would all but exclusively wear their clothing or accessories – spearheaded the stellar careers of the late Alexander McQueen, milliner Philip Treacy and Julien Macdonald. Her bulging contacts book meant she regularly brokered deals for her embryonic designers, such as tie-ups with Swarovski, using her power to create both promotional and financial success for her ingénues.
“Issie’s vision was never anything to do with existing fashion. It was extravagant, and appeared to come from her own imagination,” explains designer and Study Abroad director at London College of Fashion, Basia Szkutnicka. She first met Blow when the stylist attended her graduate show and requested that Szkutnicka collaborate on a few bespoke pieces. “She wore items from unknown designers, mixed them up and had fun with them, and that individuality made her influence massive.” Sadly, Blow also had a darker side. She had reportedly attempted suicide numerous times before she tragically succeeded in 2007. She left behind a remarkable wardrobe which, just as it was about to open for auction at Christie’s, was bought in its entirety by her close friend, heiress Daphne Guinness. The collection is the centrepiece of Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!, an exhibition curated in collaboration with the Isabella Blow Foundation and running at Somerset House until March 2, 2014.
The retrospective celebrates Blow’s wonderous fashion life through the display of iconic outfits, juxtaposed with family photos, and installations inspired by other parts of Blows life, such as her love of English country gardens. “The exhibition really contextualises her incredible eye for talent and craftsmanship,” explains co-curator Shonagh Marshall. “She was obsessed with the way a designer worked with fabrics and their tailoring skills. In that was she was quite old fashioned, she wasn’t interested in the emerging trend of fast fashion - and yet discovering talent when it was brand new also made her so cutting edge.”
Pieces that will be particularly exciting to visitors include the jewel-encrusted lobster hat, worn by Blow on the front row of Julien Macdonald’s first catwalk show in 1988 and designed by French milliner Erik Halley. “Isabella was both the most gifted and giving lady but if you look up the word ‘eccentric’ in the dictionary, it should have her face next to it,” says Halley. “She wore the lobster hat once for Julien’s show and it unfortunately got broken in a journey between shows. It has been kept in pieces in a box since then, but I am now fixing and renewing it for the exhibition,” he adds.
“Isabella did not follow trends, she made them, instinctively following her heart and trusting her gut feelings,” says Martina Rink, Blow’s former personal assistant and compiler of Isabella Blow, a collection of letters about the icon. “I believe if you don’t know about a woman called Isabella Blow, then you don’t know about fashion.”
In 1992, Blow bought McQueen’s entire graduate collection, promptly moving him into her Belgravia home and becoming his unofficial muse. The two shared a deeply creative streak, a bond that was strengthened by their difficult childhoods. McQueen was devastated when Blow passed away and dedicated his spring/summer 2008 show to her.
Blow saw her first Treacy hat while working as style editor at Tatler, and fell instantly in love with the milliner’s talent. She championed him for many years, offering him studio space and commissioning him to design the wedding headdress for her second marriage.
A lover of his flamboyant style, Blow became involved with Julien Macdonald at the beginning of his career, taking him under her artistic wing. She famously styled his inaugural collection in 1998, wearing a jewel-encrusted lobster hat to sit on the front next to a Michael Jackson lookalike.
A photography devotee since the age of 11, Ellis regularly worked with Blow while she was at Tatler in the late 1990s. His cinematic style of photography meshed perfectly with her love of creating risqué shoots, and they went on to collaborate for publications such as The Face.