BoF Exclusive | Did Fashion Kill Isabella Blow? (Part I)

Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow | Photo: David LaChapelle for Vanity Fair

The brilliantly eccentric, beautiful and iconic Isabella Blow lived fashion like no other. In the wake of her tragic suicide in 2007, she has inspired a film, a play and two books, including Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion, a biography by friend of BoF Lauren Goldstein Crowe that’s to be released early next week. Today, in the first of a two part series, we bring you an exclusive excerpt from the book’s Afterword in which Ms. Goldstein Crowe asks the question: Did fashion kill Isabella Blow?

LONDON, United Kingdom — When I began the research for Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion, I was surprised to find that many in the fashion world viewed her suicide not as a tragedy but as a whodunit. Everyone had a theory. Some thought it was the fault of her employer Condé Nast or her husband Detmar for not supporting her enough when she became ill. Some thought it was the fault of Alexander McQueen for not giving her a job when he got posted at Givenchy. Some thought it was Sheikh Majed al-Sabah’s fault for disappointing her on a project he’d retained her to do. Many others blamed her mother, her step-mother or her father. As the daughter of a psychologist, all these theories seemed equally absurd to me.

But as strange as those theories were, the one that came from outside fashion was even stranger. Many members of the press decided another group was to blame: the fashion industry. That’s right, all of us. Here, in a BoF exclusive two-part excerpt from the Afterword of my book, I do the unconscionable. I defend fashion.

Isabella Blow - A Life in Fashion | Source: Thomas Dunne

In the wake of Isabella’s death newspaper columnists in the UK said with staggering authority that fashion was largely to blame for her demise. “The sense is strong that the death of the fashion stylist Isabella Blow is just another of those frequent glimpses beyond the surface of the fashion industry into something pretty dark,” said Deborah Orr in the Independent. “How vile the fashion industry is,” declared India Knight in the Times. “Fashion eats people up and spits them out in a way that sends shivers down your spine: no wonder so many of its former stars end up unhinged.” The consensus seemed to be that fashion doesn’t do enough to look after its own when things get tough. As evidence, Knight pointed to the work Isabella did to promote Alexander McQueen. “Fast forward, and McQueen is a global brand, a squillionaire, and Blow is, well, dead,” she wrote.

Fast forward even more, to February 2010, and Alexander McQueen is, well, also dead, and also by his own hand. Isabella’s death had impacted McQueen greatly. The pain he felt showed clearly on his face at her funeral. Did he feel responsible, the way that people in the industry were implying he should? Perhaps. Shortly afterward he and his close friend, the jewelry designer Shaun Leane, went to India for a month. It was the longest that McQueen had ever been away from home.

Later, after his Fall/Winter 2008 show, which was inspired by his trip and entitled The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, he told a journalist that the trip had been a “pilgrimage” — he had embraced Buddhist culture as a way to heal his pain. And, he said, it had worked. He came back refreshed and renewed, and adamant that neither he — nor the industry in which he toiled — was responsible for Isabella’s death.

The show told the rags-to-riches story of a girl who lived a life of sadness inside a tree until she found true love and emerged from the shadow of the tree into light and love. The first half featured models in tight black suits and short dresses with flared skirts and petticoats that W magazine called “Victorian Goth ballerinas,” as well as long, hooded knit dresses with sparkling snowflakes on the side. In the second half of the show, the girls were wearing Gem Palace jewels, embroidered military jackets over draped chiffon skirts, white tights, and silk prints featuring images of Britannia. W said, “That both of these characters should move into the light is not an accident; they’re merely manifesting the mood of the designer who, after an extended dark period, both personally and professionally, has embraced the light.”

McQueen’s next show was an even more direct account of his feelings for Isabella. La Dame Bleue was a sort of greatest hits number, with special attention paid to the pieces Isabella loved most. As the models walked the runway, behind them stood a giant metal light encrusted sculpture of a flapping creature — an Icarus. The reference to the Greek myth, which recounts the story of the boy who flew to close to the sun, was not lost on many.

At the time of the W interview in June of 2008, the first time McQueen had spoken about her death to the press, he insisted that Isabella’s passing gave him reason to live. “I learned a lot from her death,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself. [I learned] that life is worth living. Because I’m just fighting against it, fighting against the establishment. She loved fashion, and I love fashion, and I was just in denial.”

The following year, in September 2009, he defended fashion again — this time from Isabella herself — in an interview with the The New York Times. “She [Isabella] would say that fashion killed her, but she also allowed that to happen in a lot of ways. She got herself some good jobs and she let some of them go. You could sit Isabella down and tell her what she should do with her life. But she would never understand that all it came down to [was] ‘You just are, Isabella. And that is your commodity.’”

Despite his stated optimism about what he had learned from Isabella’s death, in the early hours of February 11, 2010, Alexander McQueen locked himself in his Mayfair apartment and, after taking what the coroner called a “substantial” amount of cocaine and sleeping pills and first trying to slit his wrists, he hung himself in his wardrobe with his favorite brown leather belt. At his inquest, his doctor — the same one Isabella had been seeing when she died — said that McQueen had previously tried to overdose twice, in May and in July of 2009. On the back of a catalog of images found in his bedroom called The Descent of Man by the artist Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, McQueen had written: “Please look after my dogs. Sorry, I love you. Lee. P.S. Bury me in the church.”

It was just part of the full note, which has never been released. People close to him said that he was despondent over the death of his mother earlier that year following a prolonged illness and had been trying to steel himself for her funeral the next day. Sam Gainsbury, who produced many of his shows, said, “I think Lee got to a really dark place and could not get out of it. It was in that instance on that night. On another day maybe he would have gone to sleep and gotten out of it.” David LaChapelle is fairly convinced that McQueen had been waiting until after his mother had died to do something he had long thought about but that he knew would destroy her.

The pundits, meanwhile, said the predictable: The problem was fashion. “The fashion industry that he [McQueen] dominated is one of the least attractive legal activities on earth, populated by weirdo artists, freakish PRs and emaciated and mentally disordered models… It is a disgusting place to make a living,” said George Pitcher in the Telegraph.

Did toiling in fashion kill Isabella and Alexander? Of course not. According to a 2008 article in the Royal British Journal of Psychology, “Patterns of Suicide by Occupation in England and Wales: 2001-2005,” the odds of committing suicide by trade are much higher for health professionals, agricultural workers, and (for women) secretaries. It’s just that workers in those trades don’t make the headlines much — even when they’re not killing themselves.

Tomorrow, in part two, we look at whether the allegations that fashion killed Isabella Blow actually point to an industry-wide image problem.

Lauren Goldstein Crowe is the author of The Towering World of Jimmy Choo (Bloomsbury) and Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion (St. Martin’s Press) and a former Senior Writer at Time Magazine.

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  1. What I think is disgusting is the way self-righteous opinionators try to blame everything on fashion. What killed Isabella Blow? Fashion. Anorexia in young girls? Fashion. The global financial crisis? Fashion, probably.

    St.Valentine from San Francisco, CA, United States
  2. Well, I think that fashion has its own faults…
    I actually think that as many other fields it has unwritten rules and if you wanna stay and play you have to be strong, you’ve gotta be yourself and stand for your right to be there and enjoy that world.
    However, yes, I am sorry that people die but blaming everything of fashion is not right at all.

    ChiaraI from Italy
  3. Look, the fashion world doesn’t exist without hyperbole, so naturally, there were such statements at the untimely suicide of Isabella Blow.

    Since you are the daughter of a psychologist, something I know a bit about, can we say that the real question might be something like: in the face of a lifelong struggle with the disease of clinical depression, is there anything the outside world can do to assist the person struggling with the disease? Are there some situations which are more supportive than others? Are there some ways of living which might give a person an outlook on life which is based on more than material goods, excitement, and fame/infamy, and which might prove more inwardly sustaining? I’m not sure if the casual observer has an idea as to how much pressure Isabella Blow was under financially to “keep up appearances” — if she did not do it, her very livelihood was at stake.

    We have to admit: it’s within the very nature of fashion to discard the no-longer fashionable.

    However, in the 21st century, where there is very little in fashion which can be called “new,” we have to also admit that one aspect of fashion is now going to be the recycling of fads, which has very little to do with the amazing work of past artisans. So, how can we in the fashion world support our artisans, our creatives, going forward.

    In the music business, all during the 20th century, there were scholars and businessfolk who scoured the countrysides for the repositories of our cultural heritage; I’m thinking of Alan Lomax, Cecil Sharp in the Appalachia, and Sam Phillips of Sun Records. Musicians began to revere the old-timers (i.e. Eric Clapton and the older black blues musicians from the US) instead of throwing them on the trash heap of history. Record collectors of today search out obscure psychedelic 45s, and attempt to contact the original band members in order to re-issue the music for collectors and pay them royalties (even if those royalties are small.)

    If we in the fashion world can begin to develop such reverence for our forebears, perhaps we won’t have another Charles James dying unknown in the Chelsea Hotel. And once we admit that there is nothing “new,” perhaps we can develop a fashion system where a designer is not required to come up with an amazing extravaganza more than twice a year (I’m now thinking of the death of McQueen.) Perhaps we can develop a system where a designer can travel, as the McQueen trip mentioned above, and read, and go to the theater, and put on a runway show when they truly have something to say, and in the other seasons, stick with a small presentation for buyers, elaborating on the ideas they presented in their last runway show. Sure, let the handbags and shoes take on the “new” and faddish elements of the gaping maw of fashion, and let the artisans develop in their own pace.

    Looking forward to your thoughts in part two, and in your book.

    Miss Gretchen from United States
  4. Thanks for your comment Miss Gretchen. You raise some good points, a few of which are in the next installment. It’s true that an enormous amount of pressure is put on people in fashion, but I think that’s true in many industries. Actually, I think many of the people in the industry gave Isabella an enormous amount of support including those who were blamed for her downfall. Majed al-Sabah was creating projects just for her, because she said she needed money. McQueen paid for her treatments. She lived with Philip Treacy when she got out of the Priory after her first stay. Nadja Swarovski was very generous with Isabella’s expenses. The comments in the press here struck me as more than hyperbole, but juvenile and uninformed. Every suicide is unique and of course most are not dissected in the press. Yes, we turn over trends quickly but I don’t think we toss out workers any more than any other business. Just look at the front row of any show! Most of those people have been sitting there for decades.

    Lauren from United Kingdom
  5. Thank you Lauren, for the ‘sneak peak’.
    Whilst agreeing with Miss Gretchen and Lauren….
    ALL to easy I agree to point fingers.
    [My slant and opinion is 'homegrown']!
    I did so too, some time back, when my husband to whom I was married to for 15 1/2 years eventually sucseeded in taking his life after many attempts, leaving me a widow at 32 with 3 young children, in a country not my own, with a family of inlaws in denial,and so too my husband whom I adored, and still do.
    An exciting, brilliant,romantic man, so full of life. “A huge man in every sence”, as was written when he died.
    My children, still comment “Our mother is still married to our father”.Although I have a charming 3rd husband, who incidentally Izi adored.
    Not anyones fault, very little in England was known in England in the 60′s of this very real ilness.
    All ‘happenings’ in our little family were hidden.
    Keeping their father alive at all costs, no one else seem to matter.
    All were schocked, including his friends, when reading of hs death in the papers, those who did not really know us, jumped to all sorts of conclussions, which in their mind seemed true and obvious.
    I BLAMED myself, had I done this, perhaps that, my younger son blamed himself.
    For a brief moment, I blamed myself, for being in hospital when Izi called ‘that’ morning, and spoke to my husband, who said that she seemed well. Then this illness is so deceptive. My 1st husband would glow with bon homme, when ..
    With Iz, I just listened, and all I could say was “This will pass”..A broken record most times. No good telling her that she was an international icon. That the flat shoes she had to wear now, instead of her beloved Monolos, would be the next rage, as I told her “Izi wears…
    Suggested to Izi to talk to her friends and she would say”They have their own problems, do not want to hear” Understandable, as the record repeats.
    I am sorry that she could not come here more often.
    A postcard reads:”Dreaming of stringhoppers and meat curry”. ” Helga, I am talking to your silver boots”!!
    NO ONE is to blame, the blame lies in the ILLNESS, genes of which lie dormant in many families,rearing its hideous heads ‘whenever’.
    Chemical inballance.
    I read copiously when my husband was ill, trying to understand how this man so full of life, with 3 young adoring children, and wife, could go into such suicidal depressions. Feels so HELPLESS.
    Doctors used to say that it was only a matter of time!! Hard to take!!
    At the Priory, where he went a couple of times, he told the doctors that he was there only to please me!!
    On the advice of doctors and family, Ileft him for 3 months, on the understanding that the children, and I would come back, if he got himself ‘sorted’ at the ‘Priory’. I called him everyday. Visited him once, and was introduced by him to Peter Sellars who also happened to be there.
    This illness is ‘one’ that more often than not afflicks the clever, and gifted.
    I remember telling Izie: “You live life as a horoine in a novel” Izi:”Yes”.
    Exhibitionist? Not really, Izie needed love and exceptance, always out to please everyone. Insecure? Yes.
    Detmar truly loved her and so did we all. Izie KNEW this.
    Our door was open always to her.
    The lovely conversation I had with her on the telephone a week before she died, with her sister Lavinia by her side, confirms this. Izi thanked me..I should have guessed, she was planning to take the ‘cocktail’ that my husband took, one which never fails… Izi had enough…
    I hope that books etc, are written about her HUGE talents, and concentrate on her, and not go blindly into a “Who done it”..
    The illness “Done it”.. Izi loved coming out to Sri Lanka, bringing friends sometimes, and staying with us, lots of fantasy going on here..
    We both bonded on fantasy, I started to explain a fantasy, and she would finish, and vice versa.
    We all miss here. The hat she gave me from one of Alexanders shows sits ontop of my lamp infront of me as I write. Everyone loved Iz, impossible not to. HUGE heart.
    Phillip was very close to her, and was always kind and understanding. Izi, loved going to his ateler and giving him ideas, which she used to tell us about..That hat was…” Izi was inspiring.. Unearthing Phillips great talent..As she did to so many..
    Phillip never forgot that when he started his phenominal carrer, he lived in a house I owned in Belgravia, and which I lent to both Izie and Detmar.
    Tis the illness. BLAME that. Speak of it..
    We lost a lovely young friend in her 20,s a few weeks ago, to this ……..illness..Unforgiving..
    Thank you.
    We look forward to reading your book.
    There are many truths. Tis how people see it, and what they really WANT to believe.
    My family and friends blamed my 1st husband…”Ilness yes..BUT.. He should never have..”..Blame the illness..As long as people find scapegoats, the illness will thrive, and take yet more..