November 19, 1958 – Isabella Blow:
“Fashion is a vampiric thing, it’s the hoover on your brain. That’s why I wear 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.”
She was born Isabella Devles Broughton, and as Isabella Blow she was a fashion editor, consultant, muse and nurturer of young fashion talent. Wild and eccentric, Blow was a creative visionary. She is renowned for her extroverted sense of style, which sometimes involved little more than a fur coat, red lipstick and a hat. To many she was the embodiment of the English eccentric, but her life was tragic; she suffered from deep depression and unhappiness.
Part of an aristocratic family, Blow grew up on the family’s estate in Cheshire county, Northwest England, with her parents and two sisters. A brother drowned in the family’s swimming pool when he was two-years-old. The tragedy shattered her parents’ marriage. They divorced when blow was 14. She recalled that her mother left offering her nothing more than a goodbye handshake, attributing this to the beginning of her lifelong battle with depression.
Blow was sent to a private school in Surrey. After finishing her education she moved into a London squat and took odd jobs to earn money. In 1979 she moved to New York City to study ancient Chinese Art at Columbia University. She became friends with many artists of the era, including Andy Warhol, Jean-Michael Basquiat and Roy Lichtenstein.
In 1980, she moved briefly to West Texas to work for the designer Guy Laroche, but returned to NYC the next year. It was then that she was introduced to Anna Wintour, then-creative director of Vogue, and soon after she became her assistant.
Blow moved back to London in 1986 and began working at Tatler magazine, assisting the then-fashion editor Michael Roberts. In 1988, she met Detmar Blow. They got married at Gloucester Cathedral a year later, where she wore a hat created by milliner Philip Treacy, an unknown student at the Royal College of Art whom she had recently discovered. Treacy became a lifelong friend and confidante of Blow’s, and Blow was almost never seen without one of Treacy’s hats on her head. Blow:
“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.”
Blow possessed a unique ability to spot and nurture design talent. She discovered many of the fashion industry’s leading figures. Three years after discovering Treacy, she attended the University of the Arts London MA graduate show where she spotted the work of a young student, Alexander McQueen. Blow famously bought McQueen’s entire graduate collection and began supporting him and his talent in any way she could. After McQueen became world famous and his label was bought by Gucci, Blow became bitter that he did not employ her in any official capacity within his brand, despite her efforts to make him a success. She was upset that McQueen didn’t take her along when he sold his brand to Gucci. Once the deals started happening, she felt tossed aside. Everybody else got contracts, and she got a free dress.
Blow left Tatler in 1997 to work at the Sunday Times, yet returned to the magazine as Fashion Director in 2001. Through her tenure at Tatler she became notorious for her risqué shoots, once featuring herself topless in a 2004 shoot titled See Nipples and Die.
Before Blow’s breathed her last breath, she had already attempted suicide several times, once shattering both her ankles after jumping from the Hammersmith Flyover, an elevated roadway in West London. She died in spring 2007 after drinking the pesticide, Paraquat. At the time of her death she was also suffering from ovarian cancer.
Blow’s funeral at Gloucester Cathedral , the same place she had married her husband almost 20 years earlier, featured a Treacy created hat that looked like a black sailing ship. It was placed atop her coffin, and she was buried in a red-and-gold brocade dress designed by McQueen. McQueen, and Treacy dressed the body.
The eulogy was read by her longtime pal, Rupert Everett. He said:
“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 and I will miss you for the rest of my life.”
McQueen dedicated his spring/summer 2008 show to Blow, collaborating with Treacy to create crazy head pieces. The show’s space was sprayed with Blow’s favorite scent by Robert Piguet and the invitations had drawings depicting a triumphant Blow in a McQueen dress and Treacy headdress, aboard a horse-drawn carriage ascending to heaven.
In 2010, Bryan Ferry dedicated his album Olympia to Blow. Blow was godmother to Ferry’s son.
After her death, Blow’s sisters arranged an auction of her clothing at Christie’s, which included over 90 McQueen dresses, 50 Treacy hats and portraits of Blow by photographer Mario Testino and Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld. The auction never happened because Blow’s closest friend Daphne Guinness bought the entire lot. Guinness:
“The planned sale at Christie’s could only result in carnage, as souvenir seekers plundered the incredible body of work Issie had created over her life. Indeed, in many ways, the auction would not be merely a sale of clothes; it would be a sale of what was left of Issie, and the carrion crows would gather and take away her essence forever.”
In 2010, Blow’s sister Julie Broughton was presented with a rose that had been named after Blow by McQueen, before his death. It was named Alexander’s Issie. Broughton:
“My sister, Isabella, was passionate and totally dedicated to fashion – but only her closest friends knew of her love of gardens, and in particular, roses. Their unique color and beauty combined with their thorny nature greatly appealed to her and to her distinctive eye. She would have been extremely honored to receive this wonderful gift from her beloved friend, Alexander.“
Detmar Blow published a memoir based on the life of his late wife, Blow By Blow (2010). In the book he writes of the first time he saw his wife at a wedding in Salisbury:
“I couldn’t take my eyes off her. After the service, I waited for an opportunity to speak to her and we immediately connected. Despite the brevity of our meeting, I knew I had fallen in love with her, and sat with her after dinner.”
Detmar Blowwrote about of her friendship with Treacy:
“In Philip Treacy she had found not only the creator of her wedding headdress, but her best friend for life and the greatest discovery of her career so far. They quickly developed an intense and creative relationship that he later likened to ‘having an affair with no sex‘.”
Treacy said that Blow’s life should not be looked back upon with sadness:
“Nothing about her was tragic. She was triumphant.”
Detmar Blow also believed McQueen betrayed her.:
“Money changed him and then drugs changed him. I remember reading of how he had flown his boyfriend somewhere for £130,000 ($170,000 US). What did Issie get? Some clothes. I find that quite shocking.”
In the March 2011 issue Vogue, Lady Gaga wrote about the influence of Blow on her style:
“The fashion community in general got me much earlier than everyone else. But actually, I felt truly embraced by this London cultural movement, the McQueen, Isabella, Daphne Guinness wing of the English crowd. I remember when I first started doing photo shoots people would say, ‘My God, you look so much like Isabella Blow, it scares me’. And McQueen used to say, ‘Oh, my God, your boobs’.’ He actually grabbed both of them and said, ‘Even your boobs are like hers!'”
In 2011, Tom Ford spoke about the Treacy hat worn by Princess Beatrice at the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William:
“I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but at the royal wedding, one of the princesses wore a now-very-famous (or infamous), Philip Treacy hat – that hat wore her. Now, Isabella Blow, a woman those of us in fashion knew well – had she worn the same hat, it would have looked great. She would have worn the hat. She knew what she was about, what she wanted to express in fashion.”
By the way, the hat sold for $10,000 on eBay, with proceeds going to charity.
In 2011, a double portrait of Blow and McQueen taken by David LaChapelle went on public display for the first time. The picture, entitled Burning Down The House, was taken in 1996 at 900-year-old Hedingham Castle in Essex, and first appeared in Vanity Fair. At the time the picture was taken McQueen was just 27 years old and was still working at Givenchy. Both wear creations by the designer, with Blow wearing another Treacy hat. The image was bought by the National Portrait Gallery with the financial help of McQueen and Guinness.