The Work of Isabella Blow

08 November 2016


“Nothing about her was tragic. She was triumphant.”

Philip Treacy

“A cross between a Billingsgate fishwife and Lucretia Borgia.”

Alexander McQueen

“She was brilliant at finding new things and could always find new ways of looking at things.”

Mario Testino

Maven Pictures recently announced a new drama being made about late British fashion design Alexander McQueen and his muse Isabella Blow entitled “The Ripper”, exploring the life of McQueen as well as the couple’s turbulent relationship.

Isabella Blow – or Izzie, as she was mostly known – was nothing short of a fashion icon, talent scout, artist, inspirational force and unique woman. She famously said once that she had fallen in love with fashion through her grandmother Lady Vera Delves Broughton, a photographer explorer and hunter who remained her heroine. She also had among her fondest memories the recollection of trying on her mother’s pink hat which apparently drove her to a career in fashion. Her aristocratic family, sadly, had been marked with tragedy at a very early stage with the death of Isabella’s younger brother John, aged 2, in the family house swimming pool.

Two years later her parents divorced and it is famously reported that her mother bid farewell to each daughter (Isabella had two sisters) with a handshake. Relationship with her father wasn’t easy as well. When he died, of the over £6 million wealth he had accumulated only £5,000 were given to his daughter (while most went to his third wife…). It was one of several betrayals which marked Isabella’s life. A life of generosity, discovering talents and launching their careers often receiving very little in return.

Isabella Blow wearing Philip Treacy's Castle Hat
Isabella Blow wearing Philip Treacy’s Castle Hat, Photo by Pascal Chevalier,1999

One cannot think about Isabella Blow that Philip Treacy’s millinery comes to mind. Dressing without a hat, she would explain, equals to not dressing at all. “It’s meant to be a sensual, erotic display. You’re there to get a new husband, a new boyfriend, whatever. And you can get it. It’s a sensual thing. It’s the old-fashioned cock-and-hen story, the mating dance. Men love hats. They love it because it’s something they have to take off in order to fuck you. Anyone can wear a hat.” Treacy was one of Isabella’s first and most incredible discoveries. The an unknown student at the Royal College of Art, Isabella had fallen in love with his creativity wearing one of his creations at her wedding with Detmar Blow in Gloucester Cathedral. The beginning of a relationship which would rarely see Isabella nt wearing a Treacy hat on any occasion. He was also to become a lifelong friend and personal confidant. “I don’t use a hat as a prop, I use it as a part of me. If I am feeling really low, I go and see Philip, cover my face, and feel fantastic”.

The most celebrated of Isabella’s discovery was Alexander McQueen – discovered three years after Treacy, in 1992 – of which she famously bought his entire Central Saint Martins graduation collection for £5,000, paying it £100 a week at the time. “Det, his clothes move like birds,” she told her husband returning home. “He can cut material like a god”. From that point on she began supporting him and his talent any way she could. Till this day, the duo still remains among fashion insiders as one of the most prolific and intriguing collaborations in fashion history. But equally famous was the Gucci deal, which many saw as a plain and simple betrayal leading to Isabella’s depression. In 1997 she happened to be having lunch with then head of Gucci Tom Ford. Blow always claimed it was her who suggested he buy McQueen’s label (apparently Ford had mentioned he was looking for acquisitions to expand the group). Negotiations were made and a multi-million dollar contract popped out. A contract that did not feature Isabella in any way, giving her no role in the new company. “Isabella’s name was never on the contract” a lawyer involved in the negotiation said. And there it was, the heartless fashion world revealing its darkest side to a woman who lived her life throwing her heart over the barricade.

Isabella Blow at ITS ONE
Isabella Blow at ITS #ONE

Other than Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen, Isabella Blow’s contributions to the art and fashion worlds were countless, discovering and supporting many celebrated creative talents. In ’93 she had worked with photographer Steven Meisel producing the “Babes in London” shoot featuring Plum Skyes, Bella Freud and Honor Fraser. Model Sophie Dahl was also among her discoveried, spotted crying when only 18 years old on the steps of Isabella’s house. Huge were her contributions to reshaping brands like MAC and Swarovski and with her husband Detmar, a barrister but most importantly an art dealer for passion, she had also supported several up-and-coming artists.

For us, having Isabella in the jury of the very first edition of International Talent Support in 2002 was literally a dream come true. Here was this legendary hotbed of ideas, her heart body and soul in the promotion and support of beauty and creativity, accepting our invitation to discover the first generation of young talents revealed by ITS. Her death in 2007 truly found us unprepared.

“A funeral, done really well, is just like a wedding,” was another of her famous claims, which turned into reality. In front of the same Gothic setting of Gloucester Cathedral which 18 years earlier had seen her wedding with Detmar Blow, six bay horses, each with a plumage of black ostrich feathers, trotted drawing a funeral carriage.

“When the horses fell into step they looked as if they were dancing, even flying, some said. As the carriage entered the courtyard, led by a footman with a silver-topped cane, a black cape, and an undertaker’s top hat, the effect was of consummate gravitas and theatricality, the perfect dramatic exit for English fashion icon Isabella Blow” – Edward Elmore, Vanity Fair.

On top of Blow’s coffin was a black galleon. Needless to say, by Philip Treacy.

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