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Remembering Isabella Blow

With a major exhibition showcasing over a hundred pieces from her personal clothing collection soon set to open at London's Somerset House, accompanied by a catalogue edited by Alistair O’Neill with photography by Nick Knight, Colin McDowell remembers the remarkable Isabella Blow.
© Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! Edited by Alistair O’Neill with photography by Nick Knight
  • Colin McDowell

LONDON, United Kingdom — I first saw Isabella Blow at the Gare du Nord in Paris on a dispiritingly damp and grey January day. I was standing in the snail-slow queue for taxis which typically awaits passengers of the Eurostar. I sensed a confusion on the other side of the taxi rank, where a flock of private cars was idling, and in a sudden flash of energy to rival Nijinsky's Firebird, there she was, striding purposefully between two very large Mercedes and shouting "Vite! Vite! Vite!" to a small gaggle of assistants tripping over each other in their panic.

With three sharp words, Isabella Blow had captured the attention of everybody within hearing distance. Even her drivers now brought a newfound sense of urgency to packing her improbably large amount of luggage, including her trademark hat boxes, into the trunks of the cars as a couple of stick-thin girls dashed between them, doing nothing more constructive than fuss. There was also a rather plump man standing around, irresolutely, and making the occasional futile gesture towards what was nothing less than a scene. I later learned that this was Detmar Blow, Isabella's husband. I think there might have been a rather roughly sexy young man there as well; no doubt Isabella's latest find. She was forever discovering photographers, hair stylists, make up artists and, of course, models — and trying to further their careers by giving them any exposure she could. But on that particularly dreary day, the scene was all about the woman in the extravagant hat and clothes of a kind rarely seen in London fashion circles and certainly never worn with such total authority in the middle of a working day.

I asked one of the somber, black-clad women in the taxi queue: who was this vision of elegant energy starring in the production before us? She was shocked. "Don't you know?" she asked incredulously. "That's Isabella Blow."

I looked again. "She can't be English, surely?" I queried, genuinely. She looked far too elegant and unique. Finally, the vignette dissolved as everyone was bundled into their cars and Isabella swished past us all, unaware of anything apart from the cigarette she was busy lighting as if her very life depended on it, leaving the rest of us feeling even more dreary and boring in our very bourgeois queue.

It was a marvellous first experience of a woman I was to know very well in the years to come when we worked together on the Sunday Times Style magazine where her energy, enthusiasm and sense of occasion kept me on my toes even when she was irritating me intensely. And, no matter how much disaster she caused, I always forgave her, because Isabella was an original in more than her dress sense alone.

© Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! Edited by Alistair O’Neill with photography by Nick Knight

Isabella was not really interested in clothes. It was fashion — high as it could go — that caught her imagination. She was not at all concerned with the shows in New York or Milan. Indeed, she had to be virtually kidnapped to attend either. "I hate commercial crap," she used to say. Paris and London were where she truffle-hunted for the original, exciting and too-often totally uncommercial fashion that she loved to uncover and ignite. Everything else bored her to death and I am absolutely certain that were she alive today, with the fashion business becoming increasingly commercial, not to mention crass, her position would be quite the same, but perhaps ever more fierce.

Paris was Isabella's Samarkand (Editor's note: the city of Samarkand was a cultural crossroads founded in the 7th century BC and located in present-day Uzbekistan) and the golden road was the Eurostar. She loved "the city of light" so much she even had her own little flat in the Marais, full of impeccable art, but never anywhere comfortable to sit. The fridge was like that of a student; nothing inside but milk so old it had solidified in its bottle, half-drunk bottles of flat champagne and the odd lipstick or two. But these things were only the mundane backdrop to the reality that Isabella saw. There were clothes everywhere and bags and boxes bearing the most fabled names in Paris, alongside supermarket bags containing a fabulous necklace by a craftsman Issy had discovered or a pair of satin Manolos, ruined and abandoned after a walk in the rain.

Issy was an inveterate borrower and designers and craftsmen were happy to offer her things to wear throughout her career as they knew she would always attract photographers. And the more outrageous the clothes, the more enthusiastic she would be. She once went through a period when she loved what Paco Rabanne was doing with chains and variegated ironmongery and she duly wore his clothes bravely and with conviction, despite the fact that they weighed a ton and were terribly painful to sit down in.

But, of course, that was all part of it. For Isabella, who once pointed out that fashion is all about emotions and especially love, the effect always justified the means, no matter how uncomfortable. Had she lived in Elizabethan England, her ruff would have been the biggest and most constraining in the entire court. In 18th century Versailles, her waist would be laced-in tighter than any other woman's. No Victorian bustle would have been half as pert and commanding as hers.

I often used to imagine her painted by some of the great society painters of the past. We can't have those now, but we do have some marvellous images of her by the greatest fashion photographers of our time, but sadly, never the one I would have loved to see: a portrait based on Lucas Cranach's great painting, Cupid Complaining to Venus, who is nude apart from an extravagant hat, shot by Helmut Newton.

It would have been sensational, not least because Isabella had a fabulously feminine figure, light years away from the vapid dominant shape of fashion today. Isabella loved being photographed when she was younger and could wear a foolish hat for the photographers, even though their endless attention frequently wearied her. After an especially irritating ordeal with the paparazzi, she said to me, "You know, I feel like Mary Queen of Scots. Everybody is after my bloody head."

Her one-liners could be especially apt, as when, tired of hearing how brilliant a current young stylist was, she turned to me and said loudly, "I don't know what all the excitement is about. In my opinion, stylists are nothing more than trolly dollies for the photographers, fetching and carrying. What's so special about that?"

She asked me several times to go for a weekend at Hilles — the stately house in Gloucestershire where she and Detmar held a sort of weekend fashion court — including once in the winter: "I have to warn you, it gets very cold. When I am cooking the bacon and eggs for Detmar's breakfast, I have to wear my Schiaparelli fur coat. The bloody kitchen is always freezing."

My  imagination still boggles at the picture. But, of course, Isabella Blow was always "dressed." I used to imagine her popping into a local newsagents in Stroud for a packet of cigarettes, wearing one of her more extravagant looks. She wouldn't turn a hair at the amazed stares her appearance would attract.

© Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! Edited by Alistair O’Neill with photography by Nick Knight

I remember once coming out of her tiny terrace house behind London's Waterloo station, where she had been showing me the extraordinary decor, including a bath made of one sheet of glass stretched across the entire length of a bedroom. It was huge. Isabella had a strong Rabelaisian element to her humour and I remember her lascivious grin when she told me, "It can hold five well-built young men at once, you know. You should come over for bath night some time." Like not going for a weekend at Hilles, I regret not taking up the invitation. It would have been more of a hysterical than a sexual experience, I am sure. On the same occasion, we were looking for a taxi on Waterloo Road and a woman in the passenger seat of a truck rolled down her window and yelled: "You look a bloody disgrace to women, dressed up like that. You ought to be ashamed!" Totally unfazed, Isabella, who had a strong command of street life and its vocabulary, yelled back: "Look at yourself, duckie! You're a bit of a fucking sight from where I'm standing!" And we jumped on a bus, as we often did when we didn't have a car or couldn't get a taxi.

Isabella Blow was high maintenance, it goes without saying, but she was a very down-to-earth, practical woman with absolutely no sense of grandeur about her. Except that she did have a tendency to believe that her presence at a fashion show was an honour for the designer and therefore, if she were delayed, the show should be too. This attitude meant that we were frequently late, running into a show just as the lights were dimming. The late entrance was the culmination of a virtually unchanging dramatic mise en scène with Issy and me pacing her apartment, whilst an assistant was dashing back and forth across Paris collecting furs, dresses, shoes and jewellery that she was borrowing for her grand entrance. I found the experience both exhilarating and nerve-racking. I had to write about the shows on a very quick turnaround, whereas Isabella could go back for a second look at her leisure. But it wasn't only her complex dressing routines that caused problems. We were both foodie hedonists in Paris and were always ready for the extra bottle of wine or a considerable wait whilst the chef created something special for her. The long Paris lunch could have been created for us. But on one memorable occasion, it brought disaster.

A favourite place for us both was the Brasserie Lipp on the left Bank. Even the sulkiest of its waiters (and in those days it was renowned for them) fussed around Isabella as if she were a contessa, or perhaps their granddaughter. She never failed to be seated at one of the favoured tables at the front of the room where we frequently were facing Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, who always acknowledged her. Well, on one particular occasion, lunching there before a McQueen for Givenchy show, we lingered a bit too long. When I murmured half-heartedly about the show, Isabella would wave away my comments, saying, "It's all right. Lee will wait. He would never start without me." But we had not anticipated the bad weather, which, more than in any other fashion capital, causes absolute traffic mayhem in Paris. When we finally came out of Lipp, it was drizzling and I knew immediately that the chances of quickly getting a taxi were nil. Isabella was wearing a silk McQueen suit and a feathered hat, if I remember correctly. We had no umbrella. We borrowed one and began the search for a cab. But even then, over an hour late, Isabella was confident the show would be held. We finally arrived — just as the audience was pouring out of the venue. I was in shock, wondering how to tell my editor that I had missed the hottest show in Paris. Isabella was bemused. She really did expect the show to have been held, not, I must say very clearly, out of pride, but because she thought that McQueen would be as loyal to her as she was to him. I have often felt that was the moment when the basis of what had been a truly loving friendship began to change.

The relationship between Isabella and Alexander "Lee" McQueen was an unlikely one, but also very strong and emotionally binding. Very quickly after their first meeting, they were drawn to each other through their shared passion for perfection and the similarity of their beliefs, so much so that they were almost like brother and sister, despite their vastly different backgrounds. What they had in common was the most powerful belief in, and love for, the creativity of fashion at its very highest level. They had a vision of how clothes could be, a vision not dared by any couturier previously.

Issy fell in love with Lee's aesthetic at first sight and impulsively bought his entire graduate collection. It was not just an act of generosity, but also one of faith. At that point, even in the fashion world, few had heard of McQueen and, of those, not all understood his radical approach. Isabella, however, had no doubts. She told me she had found a genius and she was determined to have the clothes, though she hadn't the money to pay for them all at once and ended up sending the money in monthly instalments.

The arrangement highlighted the fact that, at many points in her career, Isabella found herself with little or no money. She once phoned into a meeting she was supposed to attend to say she was stuck in Gloucestershire and couldn't leave because she didn't have the bus fare to get her to Stroud station where she had planned to use a credit card to pay for the ticket to London. Her cleaning woman, from whom she had hoped to borrow the fare, had not turned up. She was often very low on funds. It amazed me then and it still amazes me now that a woman who gave so much to fashion was so often broke, although I accept that she could be very impulsive, even self-indulgent, and was in no way commercially minded. Especially when it came to fashion, it was her heart, and not her head, that ruled. And I dare say she was taken advantage of.

Things even changed with McQueen, who was very generous with her in the early days. He gave her clothes and loaned her many more, but as his fame grew and her influence waned that began to change. They never quarrelled over this, but I know that it hurt Isabella to think that her use to the man with whom she was so totally in creative accord had faded.

© Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! Edited by Alistair O’Neill with photography by Nick Knight

Immature journalists were aways coming up to Isabella for a quote and she could give good ones, though they were often too bawdy for fashion publications. They always wanted to hear her favourite designers from the past and Isabella didn't necessarily bother with them. But she did have her favourites, of course, as personalities as well as creators. At the top of her list was probably Schiaparelli, with whom she sometimes shared a remarkable facial resemblance. She loved Schiap's wit and boldness and especially admired the way she used first rate artists (notably Dali) to blur the edges between fashion and art. Although she loved Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, she was no great fan of the lady herself. We talked about her a lot and Issy's view was simple: Chanel was sour and hated too easily — hardly surprising in the light of the betrayals she had suffered in her early life. But Issy felt that Chanel actually disliked women, especially those who could afford her clothes. She revered Balenciaga's cut, whilst warming more to the extreme femininity of Dior. On Yves Saint Laurent, she was strangely reticent.

The people who really made Issy's adrenalin flow were young iconoclastic hell-raisers who wanted to set the world alight by burning the pages of the fashion rule book. And they were almost all London-based, at a time when to be young and creative in England was very difficult. Those were the days of Margaret Thatcher, the days of conformity. Students — especially art school students — rejected the society she created. It was an attitude with which Issy instinctively bonded. But she was not only influenced by what was happening on the fashion back streets of London. She was always aware of what was happening in Paris, as well. I recall that she was the first person to fully recognise Viktor & Rolf, dragging me to shows which were invigorating even when they took place on a runway with no lighting. She was an explorer, fashion's Marco Polo, a pioneer who was open to all forms of fashion creativity as long as it was new, outrageous and, initially at least, virtually unwearable.

We were forever traipsing around the less salubrious corners of Paris late at night, searching for an unmarked door where, Isabella promised, we would find the newest, most exciting and, it must be said, the most totally bonkers young men in fashion. Looking as if they had not eaten a proper meal for years, dragging lustily on cigarettes of god knows what, they were totally impervious to the icy cold of the former warehouses in which they showed. My favourite was a show held well after midnight which consisted of shoes that were wooden boxes and totally unwearable. The audience was stupefied. What to do? Laugh? Cry? Boo? Isabella had no doubts. She stood up in her perfectly cut McQueen leather suit and mink cape and clapped so loudly that the audience, including me, did exactly the same.

Very few things annoyed Issy as much as being called an eccentric. She rejected the suggestion outright and I believe she was right to do so. Eccentrics are fundamentally self-centred and selfish. Isabella, for all her faults, was neither.

Isabella Blow was intelligent and interested in all contemporary creativity. Never afraid of the shock of the new, never complacent in her rejection of the familiar or second rate, she was the catalyst for many young talents and, by and large, the Blow stable has been a strong one. Most everyone knows the young designers she supported, but she also had a great eye for a model. Her discoveries include Honor Fraser, Stella Tennant and Sophie Dahl, of whom Issy said, not unkindly: "She's a blow-up doll with brains."

By and large, very few British journalists during the Isabella years changed anything much. Their influence was transitory, if it existed at all. Yet for the succour she gave to Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy alone, Isabella stands head and shoulders above her contemporaries.

But inevitably, her time passed. Her looks changed along with her diminishing influence. And depression took over. I remember sitting with her at the final round of couture shows before she died. She looked so tired and depressed that I asked her what was wrong. "I think I will have to commit suicide," she said. "Oh, Issy, don't say that," I replied. She took my hand and said, "But not until after couture."

And that was the Isabella I knew: always ready to laugh at herself even when on the edge.

All imagery photographed by Nick Knight for "Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!" a companion catalogue to the exhibition at Somerset House, produced in partnership with the Isabella Blow Foundation and Central Saint Martins.

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