Blow by Blow
For every artist who has departed the earth before finding recognition and renown by a world too slow to catch on, one might take heart from the tale of the fabulously fearless and predictably outrageous Isabella Blow, “Issie”, who after spending her career, not on center stage, as hoped, but on the periphery, in the company of the bright and beautiful, tragically died by her own hand at 48, following a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. A non-conformist to the the end, Issie, while attending a party in 2007, daringly and deliberately downed a quantifiable dose of weed killer, ending her unfulfilled dreams and silencing the long-sought applause.
Burning Down the House
Alexander the Great and Queen Isabella
Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow, 1996
Like an angel who has lost her way, but not her mystique, the divine Isabella Blow continues to roam the earth, a woman of almost Vreeland-esque influence and creativity. How ironic that her star is at long last gracing the universe, enjoying a resurgence of notoriety that she would have endlessly tittered and giggled about.
With two new books in the works, a film, a play, and the sudden decision just last week by Issie’s good friend and confidant, Daphne Guinness, to call off the auction previously scheduled by Christy’s to sell the whole of Blow’s “personal effects,” (Guinness, herself, bought the entire collection preventing the estate from falling into the clutches of who she disparagingly termed “souvenir seekers”), it is almost easy to forget that the endearing fashion-world fixture and ubiquitous “hat lady” left this world for another just four years ago.
According to Guinness, who stated her case in the Financial Times last week, “Why I Stopped the Sale” she said:
“I want – we want – to do what she would want; what we think she would want. I would like this unique collection, marked by her grace and the fact it was so intimately hers, to allow people (whether students, lovers of fashion, historians) to remember her and benefit from her legacy, when we who knew and loved Issie are no longer here. For that, it needs to be kept whole; it is like a diary, a journey of a life, and a living embodiment of the dearest, most extraordinary friend.”
“In this way all of Issie’s friends, known or unknown, near or far, both those she chose and those who identify with her, will have access to something that no one should be afraid to call by its proper name: Isabella Blow’s Work of Art.”
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Over a twenty-year career in the high temples of fashion, including stints at Vogue and Tatler, Blow is credited with discovering a bevy of superstars, including the fashion designer, Alexander McQueen, (who following in Issie’s tragic footsteps, killed himself earlier this year) and the milliner, Philip Treacy, the mad sorcerer of all things hat. She made friends with everyone from Andy Warhol to Anna Wintour and sat in the front row of every show. Designers clamored to have her photographed in their fashion spreads and the press copied her every utterance.
Nevertheless, the precise role Isabella played in the fashion industry was often hard to describe. Her formal employment was, mostly, as a fashion editor and brand consultant. Her unofficial role, however, she described as “truffle swine.”
By all standards, she was, indisputably, fashion royalty. The woman generally acknowledged by modish insiders to be the Nancy Cunard, Peggy Guggenheim, Millicent Rogers, Marchesa Casati and Otteline Morrell of our time.
Despite the accolades and social whirlwind surrounding her, Issie managed to squeeze in a marriage proposal to barrister turned art dealer, Detmar Blow, securing an engagement in a record-breaking sixteen days and marriage the following year with the bride, of course, adorned in a Philip Treacy creation.
The smitten bridegroom was said to declare:
With Detmar’s need of the theatrical, (“I am a bit addicted to drama,” he says) and Issie’s desire for security, the marriage was, by most accounts, incredibly happy and close, though Issie deeply regretted the fact that the couple had been unable to conceive a child.
“We were like a pair of exotic fruits that could not breed when placed together,” she once said.
As history tells it, great eccentrics dotted the thin-blooded gene pool of Isabella’s family long before she came along. Her grandmother, according to legend, was most regularly described as a cannibal, who after devouring a fantastic barbecue in Papua New Guinea, only to learn afterwards it was human flesh, promptly demanded more.
During the early years, when Issie worked at Vogue for fashion extraordinaire, Anna Wintour, the famed editor recalled, “I loved coming to the office because I never knew what to expect. One day she’d be a maharaja, the next day a punk, and then she’d turn up as a corporate secretary in a proper little suit and gloves.”
Another insider observed,
“With anyone else who looked like that—and there are a number of people around fashion who do look very odd—you would say that’s a pose. It’s fancy dress. But with Issie it never was.
The way she looked was an absolute evocation of who she was. She dressed as honestly and by her own lights as a banker going out in a suit. There is something about eccentricity that is forced, that’s a hobby. There was nothing forced about Issie.”
The incandescence couldn’t last, nor the hectic party rounds continue. Darker days were to come. Depressed over her waning celebrity status and a cancer diagnosis, Issie began telling friends that she was suicidal.
“It takes a lot of work to be the eccentric in the room,” commented a friend. “It comes with baggage.”
By 2006, Isabella’s suicide attempts were frighteningly regular and widely publicized. She tried sleeping pills and horse tranquilizers. She threw herself off a bridge in London, breaking both ankles and countless bones. She crashed her car into the back of a Tesco’s supermarket truck. And yet, against all odds, miraculously survived.
Until the night of the party on the 7th of May, 2007, when after having taken a great, final swig of weed-killer, Isabella Blow took her final bow.
If, as they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery, all those who turned up for her Gloucestershire funeral paid her the greatest of compliments. “I looked around,” says one friend “and everyone looked like Issie. There was lipstick, there was cleavage, and there were endless high heels aerating the damp grass.”
Treacy made 50 black hats, and the actor, Rupert Everett delivered the eulogy: “Have you gotten what you wanted, Issie?” he asked.
“Issie was a remarkable, charismatic, life-changing force who recognized genius and was unable to do anything that was dull. Everything was always exciting and never predictable. She was always seeking the best of what was beautifully interesting and what was interestingly beautiful.”
Even in death, Issie didn’t miss a beat. Said one friend, “I think she was in thirties silver lamé in the hospital even though it scratched. Self-presentation was always more important. Even at that point.”
John Galliano, head of Christian Dior, is producing a movie (in which he’s rumored to be playing himself).
A play, “Blow By Blow,” opens at the 11th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival later this month.
Blogger and friend, Little Augury, showcased Issabella Blow’s London Flat some time back. Not to be missed