Dressed as Joan of Arc in costume armour with a chain mail headdress, it was a typically dramatic picture of Isabella Blow and as part of a prestigious feature on British fashion icons in Vanity Fair magazine, it should have been one of the crowning glories of a legendary career.
Isabella Delves Broughton (Issie) was born 19 November 1958 in Marylebone, London. Isabella had two sisters, Julia and Lavinia, and a brother, John, who drowned in the family’s swimming pool at the age of two. In 1972, when she was 14, her parents separated and her mother left the household, bidding each daughter farewell with a handshake. Her parents divorced two years later. Isabella did not get along with her father, who bequeathed her only £5,000 from his estate, which was worth more than one million pounds.
Isabella Blow……I‘ve done the most peculiar jobs. I was working in a scone shop for years, selling apricot-studded scones. I was a cleaner in London for two years. I wore a handkerchief with knots on the side, and my cousin saw me in the post office and said, What are you doing? I said, What do you think I look like I’m doing? I’m a cleaner!
In 1979 Isabella moved to New York to study Ancient Chinese Art at Columbia University and shared a flat with the actress Catherine Oxenberg. A year later she moved to Texas and worked for Guy Laroche. In 1981, Issie married her first husband, Nicholas Taylor (whom she divorced in 1983), and was introduced to the fashion director of American Vogue, Anna Wintour. She was hired initially as Wintour’s assistant, but it was not long before she was assisting Andre Leon Talley, now Vogue’s editor-at-large. While working in New York, she befriended Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Both ended up doing assignments for Vogue as a result of Issie’s introductions.
In 1986, Isabella Blow returned to London and worked for fashion director Michael Roberts (Tatler and the Sunday Times Style magazine). Two years later she married her second husband, art dealer Detmar Hamilton Blow (he is a grandson and namesake of the early 20th-century society architect Detmar Blow). Milliner Philip Treacy designed the bride’s wedding headdress and a now-famous fashion relationship was forged.
Why the hats? ‘ ….to keep everyone away from me. They say, Oh, can I kiss you? I say, No, thank you very much. That’s why I’ve worn the hat. Goodbye. I don’t want to be kissed by all and sundry. I want to be kissed by the people I love.
In 1993, Isabella worked with photographer Steven Meisel producing the Babes in London shoot featuring Stella Tennant, Plum Sykes, Bella Freud and Honor Fraser. Isabella had a natural sense of style and a good feeling for future fashion directions. Spotting Sophie Dahl, she described Dahl as “a blow up doll with brains”, and launched the model’s career. During the Babes shoot, Issie told Stella Tennant, ‘If I make you famous, I want a bottle of my favourite perfume.’ A bottle of Fracas duly arrived.
Isabella Blow & Alexander McQueen
Detmar Blow……One of the main reasons my wife became the fashion icon she did was because of her passion for combing the streets in her endless quest for new designers. And her biggest discovery was undoubtedly the incredible talent of Alexander McQueen. I clearly recall how she returned home in London’s Pimlico one evening in June 1992, enraptured by the graduate show of a 23-year-old student from Central St Martins College of Art and Design. There had been no seats left, so Issie simply sat on the stairs and watched the clothes go past her. The student’s name was Lee Alexander McQueen. ‘Det, his clothes move like birds,’ she told me. ‘He can cut material like a god.’ From that very first moment, Issie, who was 33, knew that here was a fashion genius, the likes of which are seen just once in a lifetime.
Isabella bought his entire postgraduate collection, which he presented to her in a binbag, for £5,000, paying in weekly installments of £100, and made herself part of his world. She introduced her favourite milliner to her favourite fashion designer, and the two have collaborated ever since. ‘They both love birds,‘ she explains.
Detmar Blow, recalls the deep bond that united the designer and his muse. I first met Alexander when Isabella invited him to live with us at 67 Elizabeth Street in Belgravia. We were on the top floor, Philip Treacy on the first, and Alexander was on the ground. Issie was working at British Vogue at the time.
Detmar Blow …Issie was the one who suggested that McQueen use his middle name, Alexander, for his designs, as she thought it sounded nobler – like Alexander the Great. And she was a deeply significant creative influence for him, as he acknowledged when he dedicated his fourth show in 1994 to her.
In 1996 Alexander McQueen became chief designer at Givenchy, certainly not without Isabella’s help and determination. But Alexander didn’t give her a job, instead he took Katy England with him to Givenchy. Isabella was very hurt.
Detmar Blow…. his treatment of her, once he hit the big time as chief designer at Givenchy in 1996, all the more deplorable. Brutally, after all the help she had given him, McQueen did not find a role to give Issie at the fashion house. But, despite the hurt, Issie was determined to stay friends with her former protégé. She would continue to be given pride of place in the front row of his shows and he was always welcome down at Hilles. But the balance of power had shifted….
Isabella became fashion director of Tatler and consulted for DuPont Lycra, Lacoste, and Swarovski. In 2002, she became the subject of an exhibition entitled When Philip met Isabella, featuring sketches and photographs of her wearing Treacy’s hat designs. In 2004, she had a brief acting cameo in the film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and in 2005 she starred in a project by artist Matthieu Laurette, commissioned and produced by Frieze Projects 2005 and entitled “What Do They Wear at Frieze Art Fair”. In the same year MAC cosmetics honoured her with a lipstick (named of course): Isabella.
Toward the end of her life, Isabella had become seriously depressed and was reportedly anguished over her inability to “find a home in a world she influenced“. Although Isabella continued to produce incredibly creative shoots, her depression really took hold. In 2003, she had her first spell in a mental health clinic. On 6 May 2007 Isabella made her seventh suicide attempt. When Detmar got to her hospital bedside after she had swallowed poison (weedkiller), he dared hope she might survive, even though a nurse told me she was dying.
After her death, Detmar Blow confirmed that his wife suffered from depression and that she had once declared, “I’m fighting depression and I can’t beat it”.
At the funeral in 2007, Alexander McQueen was utterly devastated, distraught. Isabella was buried in McQueen, in a red-and-gold brocade dress. Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy and her sister Julia helped dress the body.
Alexander McQueen tribute Spring 2008 show: La Dame Bleue
On entering the white-on-white space the mood had an affectionate nostalgia for Issie Blow, whose favourite Robert Paguet scent, Fracas had been sprayed liberally around the room and pink boxes containing fragrance were on the seats: all denoted that this would be a fitting tribute ~ love was in the air. As her two most successful discoveries and close friends, Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen collaborated on the show in tribute to Issie
The brilliantly eccentric, beautiful and iconic Isabella Blow lived fashion like no other.