On a recent interview with Simon Doonan, author of The Asylum, he talked about the role of influencers in fashion played by eccentric aristocratic women with an extreme sense of style.
One of these women was Isabella Blow, the fashion editor who discovered, patronized and served as a muse for legendary designers including Alexander McQueen, milliner Philip Treacy, Hussein Chalayan as well as models including Bella Freud and LA gallerist Honor Fraser. Blow, who took her own life in 2007, is now the subject of an eye-opening exhibition at London’s Somerset House.
Bennett Stein, aka the GOOD4NOTHING Connoisseur checked out the show and finds it has inspired him to a new year’s resolution.
Isabella Blow — just try on the delirious, alliterative rhyme feast of her name: Izzz – Zah – Bell – Lah – Blow — not only sounds like a Shakespeare or a David Bowie character a la “Lady Grinning Soul,” but I bet “all you pretty things” know she is the embodiment of the “diamond dog” fashionista.
I resisted as I entered the exhibition, thinking here we go, another flashy, shallow poser of vanity and narcissism. But no, it turns out Ms. Blow is a reigning demon queen of the field. She earned her stripes by championing up and coming fashion design innovators years and months before they blew up. She’d barge into their studios, insist she loved the work, said I’ll pay you a hundred quid a week if you let me wear a dress of yours to all the happening scene parties of the Euro-set. And boom–that’s how she helped break fashion stars like Alexander McQueen and milliner, to showbiz royalty and actual royalty, Philip Treacy.
Isabella had true vision, she was a prophet of the threads. She understood the deep undersoul of beauty and her wild hunches became miraculous flashpoints that rocked and taste-made the fashion world like no other. Plus she could really sling the lingo. There are several videoed interviews with her around the exhibition: Take the one of her in a ‘Crown Of Thorns’ chapeau by Philip Treacy’s. Wow, I thought, that is one stunning lid. That takes chutzpah to wear something from Jesus’ steamer trunk. Just then through my head flashed the Dylan lyric, ‘I dreamed I saw St. Augustine alive with fiery breath…’ Figures, I’d just come from Somerset House’s upper gallery where the show, “Heaven In A Hell Of War” was on, all about WWI figurative painter Stanley Spencer’s dreamy penchant for painting over nightmare scenes in WWI field hospitals as visions of St. Augustine’s heaven-drenched musings he’d read in “City Of God,” and “The Confessions Of…” I sensed that Ms Blow had picked fashion as her path to divine stain removal, or heavenly uplift, if you will.
She positively gave off that medieval iconic saintly glow (her devilish grin was concealing some order of cherubic mischief at least) as I watched in one video interview at some hot ticket London party, breathy with sweat drops spritzing from dancing, yet dressed immaculately, swiping a flute of Crystal off a passing waiter’s silver tray as she said something like “fashion is an attitude, baby” and, “in fashion, it’s worth overstating the obvious,” echoing Mary Quant. Sure, it was stuff we’ve heard before, perhaps, but you could tell she really lived it—and knew of whence she spoke.
Then you realize all the best photographers swirled around her and the most glam models, like the great granddaughter, Bella Freud, of–you know, that guy who invented psychoanalysis and penned “The Interpretation Of Dreams.” Wow, that flipped my lid and shook my id as I was being slowly lured in and won over.
Blow did not come from domestic stability. She was born to Major Sir Evelyn Delves Broughton, a military officer, and his second wife, Helen Mary Shore, a barrister, who apparently left Isabella and her sisters, departing with a handshake, when she was 14.
She went on to spend thirty years as a fashion editor and director — starting in the early 1980s as Anna Wintour’s assistant at US Vogue, followed by posts at Tatler, British Vogue and the Sunday Times Style. Over that period she broke designers, photographers and models, both on the pages of the influential magazines she worked at but also through her own highly photographed personal style. She served as a portable advertisement for the clothes-as-art creations of Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy, Hussein Chalayan and Julien Macdonald, encouraging them to shoot the moon.
I kept coming back to the whole reason for fashion, besides the one Camille Paglia stresses, which is that fashion is an art form, but that it also makes a person feel better, makes a person feel handsome, momentarily rich, desirable even. Fashion may strike many of as a frivolous pursuit but it may be about something, or some things, considerably bigger.
It can awaken a sense of worth, if not pride. Fashion, beep-beep, at its best is for some a form of therapy. It can bestow an electric charge, maybe, and with your permission swing your mood to the rafters. It’s playing dress up for adults. It can not only jolt you to life, striving for an ideal of beauty, inner/outer—whose counting, but it can lift you to possible transcendent states, through rituals of physical perfection-making and get you to the edge of something like spiritual equanimity, even if only for a fleeting evening.
For Blow, however, who suffered from lifelong depression and attempted suicide several times, fashion was also a shield and a tonic. About the remarkable hats she wore that resulted from her deep and creative relationship with Philip Treacy, she once said, “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. Although, if I’m on a real low it requires going to the doctor for a prescription.”
Rupert Everett, a long time friend of Blow’s, read the eulogy at her funeral, which took place at the Gloucester Cathedral where, 20 years earlier she had married her second husband, Detmar Blow. “For someone who was suicidal, she was constantly dazzled by life and life was constantly dazzled by her. . . you were a one-off, a genius friend, your own creation in a world of copycats. . .”
I think I shall no longer disdain museum exhibitions that feature a fashion designer or muse to fashion designers. My new year’s rez will be to drop the stuffy culture snob act. And if you are in London between now and March 2, get your derrieres over to London’s Somerset House and check out “Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore.”