Isabella Blow, Pioneer of fashion narrative.
A celebrated editor, stylist, and all-round fashion philanthropist, Isabella Blow built the world of fashion a far weirder and wackier residence during her reign as a distinctly British global icon of the art form. Known for championing the careers of fashion protégés Philip Treacy, Hussein Chalayan, Julien Macdonald, Jeremy Scott, Sophie Dahl and Stella Tennant, her most notable discovery was arguably that of the late Alexander McQueen.
- On Anglo-Saxon Attitude and Fashion narrative.
One of Blow’s most famous styling shoots in her career was ‘Anglo-Saxon attitude’ shot by Steven Meisel in 1993 for British Vogue – known unofficially as ‘Babes in London’. It is interesting to deconstruct the way she conveys a narrative through styling in this shoot. The fur used emphasises English heritage paying homage to the Tudor period within England where fur was used as a symbol of status. The traditional Scottish tartan worn links back to the Victorian era in England as tartan was made extremely popular by Queen Victoria, it also has connotations of the rebellious Punk era in Britain, linking back to the word ‘attitude’ in the shoot title. The stylistic choice of the fishnets and spiked heels worn also bring a feisty Punk feel to the narrative, combined with the pixie crops of Stella Tennant and Bella Freud. Blow creates a juxtaposition of the ‘Anglo-saxon’ and ‘attitude’ really well throughout the editorial, the soft and the hard, for example, Bella Freud in the peter pan collared tea dress, combined with fishnet tights and her spikey short hair cut, reveal Blow creating a visually interesting antithesis within the narrative.
- The Story of Isabella Blow
article source: VanityFair.com by Edward Helmore 2014
In the end, it seemed, Isabella Blow loved fashion more than the fashion world loved her back. By 2006 the woman who’d discovered major talents such as Alexander McQueen, launched countless new looks, and turned hats into a spectator sport was being marginalized by an industry that couldn’t compute her value. Three months after Blow’s suicide, friends, mentors, and colleagues tell Edward Helmore why the wildly eccentric British aristocrat became an icon, and then a casualty.
Soon after three P.M. on Tuesday, May 15, six bay horses, each with a plumage of black ostrich feathers, trotted toward Gloucester Cathedral drawing a Victorian funeral carriage, its cargo bedecked with white gardenias and surmounted by a black galleon hat. When the horses fell into step they looked as if they were dancing, even flying, some said. As the carriage entered the courtyard, led by a footman with a silver-topped cane, a black cape, and an undertaker’s top hat, the effect was of consummate gravitas and theatricality, the perfect dramatic exit for English fashion icon Isabella Blow.
The previous Monday her husband, Detmar Blow, had sent out a text message to all their friends: Issie died peacefully last night. I am heartbroken. DETMAR. A bank holiday in Britain, a slow news day, ensured that Isabella, a beloved English eccentric known for her outrageous hats, and who had been at the vanguard of British fashion for a quarter of a century, would be on the front pages the following morning. In New York, it was the day of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala, fashion’s premier night out, when the perfectly primped and preened, exquisitely depilated international fashionistas come together for a party thrown by Blow’s mentor, Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
News of Blow’s death at 48 was shocking, but it was no surprise: it was well known she had been depressed. Her husband told the press his wife had died of cancer, but, in truth, she’d taken her own life. “It’s a small detail,” says milliner Philip Treacy, one of Blow’s many fashion discoveries. “There was nothing tragic about Isabella. She was the life of the party.”A few days earlier, in London, Isabella Blow had sat for her last portrait—for a Vanity Fair portfolio by photographer Tim Walker and stylist Sarajane Hoare, on English eccentrics. She was fragile, but the photo shoot lifted her spirits. She laughed with her dirty laugh and was full of ideas for the image—a castle turret, armor by designer Alexander McQueen, the sacrifice of a pair of rare-breed sheep from her home to supply a decoration of blood.“A funeral, done really well, is just like a wedding,” she said ominously.It would soon become clear what she meant. Blow’s funeral was at least as dramatic as her wedding had been, 18 years earlier, in the same spectacular Gothic setting. Her pages then were pallbearers now.
Then, as now, she wore a hat by Philip Treacy. Detmar wore the same ceremonial Sri Lankan suit for both occasions. Then, as now, Blow had choreographed an event as glamorous and outrageous as the identity that she had forged for herself.But at the service, Blow’s wide circle of friends wondered if she was driven to her undoing by the shadow of her own creation or if this was ordained in her history. She was drawn to extremes and spent her life on a roller coaster of intensity. In death, the question was the same: How had it come to this?
That Isabella Delves Broughton, a slight and busty English country girl born with blue blood in her veins, had even ventured into the fashion world was unlikely enough. That she became an iconic, globe-trotting fixture of it was the stuff of fantasy.For more than 20 years, she kept herself on a creative high, her persona preceding her like the bow wave of a ship. People saw her as eccentric, but she disliked the term. “Her humor and eye were eccentric, but her brain really wasn’t,” says Nicky Haslam, the British society decorator. “Most eccentrics are a pose, and it’s a frightful bore.
Like Diana Vreeland, Issie could think in a surreal way.”Nevertheless, her eccentric public image was one she spent her life cultivating with her daring choices in clothing, particularly hats. Dressing without a hat, Blow explained, was like not being dressed at all. “It’s meant to be a sensual, erotic display. You’re there to get a new husband, a new boyfriend, whatever. And you can get it. It’s a sensual thing. It’s the old-fashioned cock-and-hen story, the mating dance. Men love hats. They love it because it’s something they have to take off in order to fuck you. Anyone can wear a hat.”
“Fashion is about emotion,” she once said, standing outside a fashion show in Paris in the rain. “It’s about love.” Women, she continued, “love clothes because they mean something to them—the day you met the man you love, the day you got married, what you did before you made love to somebody. It’s psychological and tied to the spirit of a woman.”
Once she had an idea, her enthusiasm knew few limits.“I’d say, ‘Maybe I’ll do a collection based on Catherine of Russia,’ and she’d say, ‘Ooh, yes. Go for it!,’” recalls designer Manolo Blahnik. “Once we had a project doing shoes from animals in the sea. We made an octopus shoe, which was incredibly difficult. Then she wanted a shoe like a carnivorous plant. . . . She would bring in extraordinary books about Surrealists, animals, dresses of queens … ”Blow could spot talent at a distance, and would push and encourage and promote until they were household names.
Along with Treacy, she discovered the models Sophie Dahl, Honor Fraser, and Stella Tennant, designer Hussein Chalayan, and, perhaps most famously, McQueen, whom she found in the early 90s at the Royal College of Art.Where many fashionistas dress head to toe in the latest labels out of vanity, Blow could hardly care less. She wore clothes for dramatic expression. At fashion shows, she would often be the only one in a sea of serious, black-clad women to cheer on the outfits she liked, effortlessly balancing Treacy’s latest design on her head. She was interested only in originality, says her friend Ronnie Newhouse, wife of Condé Nast International chairman Jonathan Newhouse and an art director. “Most people in fashion get excited about being connected to people who have already made it. Issie got excited by discovering people.
They could be from anywhere and usually were.”She helped bring British fashion to the forefront by infusing it with elements of the island’s history and mythology—whether it was King Arthur, the Bloomsbury set, or the Bright Young Things of the 1920s—and was a central figure in the British cultural renaissance of the 90s. (Blow would help produce Vanity Fair’s 1997 portfolio “London Swings! Again!” In it, she posed alongside Alexander McQueen for a memorable portrait by David LaChapelle.)Early in her career, at Tatler—which, like Vanity Fair and Vogue, is owned by Condé Nast—she was perfectly placed to usher in a new look for the British aristocracy; because she was from it, she didn’t have to take it seriously. She joined the society magazine as a fashion assistant during a creative high point there, and helped to distinguish it with wit and subversion, shaking up conventions, aware of correct behavior but not enslaved to it.
“It was the emergence of the upper classes as sexy,” says the designer Antony Price. “Nobody had seen them as that before. She repackaged them. Up to that point they’d been a joke.”No one recognized that more than Blow, who proudly traced her heritage back to the Battle of Poitiers, in 1356, where Edward, the Black Prince, routed the French army and captured King John of France. During the battle the Black Prince was almost taken prisoner. One of the squires who rescued him, John de Delves of Cheshire, had a title bestowed on him, along with a family motto, “Haud muto factum” (Nothing happens by being mute), and the right to crenellate his castle. Blow “was proud of her chivalric past,” says barrister Orlando Fraser, a cousin of hers. “She had a medieval heart—bold, haughty. She had an earthy sense of humor and she loved to shock.”
Though inspired by her aristocratic lineage, Blow was also burdened by the strange legacy of her family. Her grandfather Sir Henry John “Jock” Delves Broughton, a gambler and bon vivant, had inherited Doddington Hall, a large 18th-century house, and an estate in Staffordshire, in 1914. He received 34,000 acres of good land and considerable investments that, in all, provided him with an income of £80,000 a year, a vast sum. But Broughton was beset by fears of running out of money and began selling off the land. He made poor investments and gambled wildly. He lived, his friend Lord Carnarvon said, “high, wide, and handsome.”In 1940, Broughton took his young second wife, Diana, to Kenya’s Happy Valley, locus of a society of licentious expat British aristocrats. Within the year, Diana had begun a public affair with Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, a specialist in seducing rich married women. Broughton was as jealous a man as Diana was promiscuous, so when Erroll was found in his car on a country road outside Nairobi, killed by a single bullet in his head, Broughton was the natural suspect and was soon charged with the murder. The themes of spectacle, sex, and death were now firmly etched into the template of the family.Broughton was acquitted, but he returned to Doddington Hall with his reputation ruined. In December 1942, he checked into the Adelphi Hotel, in Liverpool, gave instructions he should not be disturbed, and overdosed on morphine. James Fox’s 1982 book (and its 1987 film adaptation), White Mischief, was about the scandal.
By the time Isabella was born, in 1958, the family was living across the lake from Doddington Hall.
As Blow later said, she lived with beauty at a distance.“It was very macabre. Their cottage overlooked the big empty house. It looked black,” says publisher David Macmillan. “It had that touch of faded glory—very grand furniture from an enormous house stuffed into a small one. The unique English look of trading down.”At the age of four, Blow witnessed the drowning of her young brother, the family’s only son and heir, in shallow water in the lake. “I can remember everything about it,” Blow said. “The smell of the honeysuckle, and him stretched out on the lawn.
My mother went upstairs to put her lipstick on. That might have something to do with my obsession with lipstick.”The family was devastated by the loss. Blow’s parents, Sir Evelyn and Lady Helen, seemed to lose interest in their three daughters, Isabella, Julia, and Lavinia, and they were soon dispatched to an all-girl boarding school. When Isabella was 14, her mother shook her daughters’ hands and walked out on them. “The repercussions of her brother’s death were enormous,” says author and university friend Liza Campbell. “Here she was, the eldest child, but a girl and therefore quite useless.
It’s a hangover from the medieval times she loved.”Sir Evelyn remarried. On his honeymoon in the Caribbean his new wife, Rona, 25 years his junior, became concerned about his unsightly varicose veins.
Upon returning to England, he underwent surgery to have them removed but in the process got gangrene and lost one leg above the knee.Blow was sent to secretarial school in Oxford. “It was a little hedonistic,” recalls Adam Boulton, political editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News, who was an Oxford undergraduate at the time. “There was always a lot of drinking going on. Isabella always wore cocktail dresses. She’d come into the drawing room, wiggle her hips, and lift her skirt. It was her thing. The only issue was whether she was wearing underwear or not.”From Oxford, Blow headed to London. She took odd jobs, eventually finding a position as a salesgirl at Medina, a boutique in Knightsbridge, where friends would come to borrow clothes for weekend parties. A career in fashion started to make sense. “She went into fashion because she liked dressing up,” says Macmillan. “She liked being another person, for the day, for the moment, for the event of it.”In 1979, Blow went to America to study art at Columbia University and then to Midland, Texas, where her first husband, Nick Taylor, an Englishman, planned to make it in the oil business. He didn’t. While in Texas, Blow took a trip to New York, where she was introduced to Anna Wintour, then creative director at Vogue. Wintour offered her a position as her assistant. “She appeared in the corridor wearing a black lace mantilla, looking like a cross between a woman in an El Greco painting and Alice Cooper,” says screenwriter Evgenia Citkowitz, then also a Vogue assistant. “She washed her desk with Perrier.
She was completely baroque compared to her co-workers—they looked like androids in the uniform of chic.”Blow became a part-time Factory girl in the orbit of Andy Warhol. “Issie was seeing Jean-Michel Basquiat, or at least he was sitting in her office a lot of the time,” recalls Wintour. America gave Blow the opportunity for re-invention, but there was an undertow of self-doubt. “One always wondered how she really felt about herself that she had to camouflage herself in these extraordinary outfits,” says Wintour. “That was there from the word go, but it got more extreme as she got older.”She returned to London in 1986 for the job at Tatler, already separated from Taylor; they would soon divorce. In 1989, Isabella Broughton met 24-year-old Detmar Blow. Sixteen days later they were engaged. Detmar, six years her junior, had an estate 100 miles west of London. In theory, he was wealthy; in practice, he was not.After their fairy-tale wedding, Isabella put her energy into renovating the cottages on the estate to rent to friends from London. The happy newlyweds lived at Hilles, a large Arts and Crafts house that was filled with tapestries, suits of armor, pikes, and other medieval flotsam. “They were like two children set loose in a big house,” says her friend (and the author’s sister) Lucy Birley, “but they were both desperately insecure about money and fueled each other’s fears.”They created a salon, entertaining writers, artists, intellectuals, and minor royalty. But as in so much of her life, the fantasy could be hard to support. “She transformed herself into this extraordinary creature,” says interior decorator Camilla Guinness, “but there was always the sense that she was only just keeping her head above water.”And her marital home was not truly her own. Helga, Detmar’s mother, gave the young couple use of Hilles under the provision they would vacate if she wished to visit. Isabella felt she was a caretaker in her own home, a situation exaggerated by sibling rivalry.
Behind the bohemian façade, it became like a daytime soap opera: Detmar and Isabella at Hilles; his sister, Selina, and her husband, Charles Levinson, a doctor, in a smaller house; Amaury, Detmar’s younger brother, roaming the hills in a shawl with two Irish wolfhounds for company; and Helga, pulling the strings from her home on an island off Sri Lanka.To Isabella’s enduring sorrow, she and Detmar were unable to have children. The Levinsons had more success: they produced one son and a daughter and were encouraged by Helga to see themselves as the rightful occupants of Hilles.To resolve the dilemma, Isabella offered to make a way for Detmar to find a woman who could bear him a son. In 2004 the couple separated. Detmar began an affair with Stephanie Theobald, the social editor of Tatler rival Harper’s Bazaar and a lesbian. Isabella’s choice of a lover was a disaster, a Venetian from an old family of glassblowers. It ended badly in a financial dispute. Her friends cannot bring themselves to mention his name. “He’s not worth the space,” says European fashion P.R. woman Karla Otto. Detmar and Isabella’s separation lasted for 18 months. Friends say this episode marked the start of her decline into serious depression.Still, her legend only grew in the world of fashion.
She committed herself to her visions absolutely. Sometimes the event itself surpassed the vision. Musican Bryan Ferry recalls a shoot in Blow’s apartment: “Issie had blown the whole budget on a cocktail shaker and ice bucket. She had also hired an 80-year-old man in a white tuxedo who used to do the bar at Claridge’s. She spent all her money on extravagant things like that. As I walked in she said, ‘Darling, would you like a cocktail?’ It was four in the afternoon and the poor man had been standing there all day. It was sheer Evelyn Waugh.”To her old friends, her behavior had not changed with time but had only become exaggerated. “She was a great one for upping the stakes,” says David Ogilvy, a singer and music producer. “She’d always be very funny about the situations she got herself into.” Indeed, she placed unique strains on the institutions of fashion. In one incident, at Tatler, she was sent up to Vogue to look at some photos. “She was banned from going up there for three months,” recalls stylist Joe McKenna, “when a member of the staff walked in to see her bent over a light box with no knickers on underneath her skirt.”Isabella Delves Broughton was now Isabella Blow, a personality—much sought after for her opinions, endorsements, and keen eye for emerging talent. She was a fashion star. Her outfits more extreme, Treacy’s headdresses more imaginative and extravagant. But her essential dilemma was not resolved. Blow still worried about money. She felt unappreciated, unrecognized by the business; if the creative parts of the fashion world had embraced her style and wit, they were getting harder for the workday mainstream to accept. She had successfully established the Style section of the London Sunday Times and had been a fashion editor at British Vogue only to find herself cast away from both. She was retained as a consultant by Swarovski, the Swiss crystal maker. She convinced her designer friends to use the crystals; Swarovski was re-invented. But they, too, let her go.“She was brilliant at finding new things and could always find new ways of looking at things,” says photographer Mario Testino, a friend from their early days in New York, “but it was hard for her to define her job, and it was hard to find ways to pay her. So you find a designer, or you find the model, but how do you invoice for that?”
“Issie wouldn’t just sell you the specific skill of someone but their entire life. Like a slave trader! And she did it in an extremely sophisticated, lewd, and seductive way,” says Malcolm McLaren, architect of punk rock in the 70s. “She was like someone constantly in search of an idea. But the idea was her, and nobody ever managed to put the mirror up in front of her and say, ‘Issie, it’s all about you. You are the artist, but you’re not telling anyone, so you never get the compensation or recognition.’”Blow was still haunted by what happened with her most famous discovery, Alexander McQueen. In 1997, Blow happened to be having lunch with Tom Ford, then head of Gucci, who mentioned that he was looking to make acquisitions to expand the Gucci group. Blow always claimed that she suggested he buy McQueen’s label. They entered into negotiations, and a multi-million-dollar price was agreed upon. The happy party set off on a now legendary train ride to Paris to sign the documents. When they got there, Blow found there was no mention of her—and there was no role for her in the new company. “Isabella’s name was never on the contract,” a lawyer involved in the negotiations said. Fashion was showing Blow its coldest face. She was devastated, and some blamed McQueen. “In a sense, what makes designers successful is their ruthlessness,” offers one well-known fashion insider.Equally likely, the executives making the deal saw Blow as an unnecessary bottom-line expense. Whatever the truth—McQueen declined to speak for this article—Blow put aside her hurt and the pair remained cautious friends. (McQueen, along with others, would pick up some of her private hospital bills in the year before her death.)“She couldn’t separate the fact that you can do something for money and it doesn’t have to be any good and that no one will know you did it. You just get paid for it,” says Vogue writer and Bergdorf Blondesauthor Plum Sykes. “She couldn’t do something unless she loved it, and she couldn’t bear things that weren’t beautiful or interesting.” And fashion, for all its emphasis on creativity, is a business.
As Blow’s world darkened, so did her sense of humor.
She began regularly wearing a Victorian mourning ring, and expressed her desire to be buried in Treacy’s Pheasant hat.
She told The New Yorker that, upon her death, her heart was to be taken from her body, placed in a heart-shaped box, and given to Detmar. In 2002, on one of her last trips to New York, she was flown in by Swarovski on the enticement of “the two C’s”: the Concorde and the Carlyle hotel. She came in her Spanish-widow look. “My husband recently died and I’ve been left incredibly wealthy,” she told The New York Observer.
Blow was always prone to mood swings, but they were becoming more pronounced. The fear of ending up penniless became a fixation. While her love of clothes and design never failed, her interest in the fashion business waned. “What is happening is they’ve destroyed the spirit. It’s globalization, Americanization. Now it’s just ‘Write the check,’ she told reporters in Paris. She hadn’t given up completely, though. She began to look abroad for opportunities. Adventure ran, she said, in her veins—her paternal grandmother, Lady Vera, who sailed the world in a cross-channel ferry, had a major influence on the young Isabella and remained, 40 years after her death, a heroine to Blow. She began work on producing a series of books titled Arabian Beauty, focusing on fashion in the Middle East, with Sheikh Majed al-Sabah, nephew of the Emir of Kuwait, who owns high-end clothing stores in Kuwait and Dubai. India, too, would soon present an opportunity for renewal.Blow also flirted with the idea of becoming a fashion reporter for Al Jazeera. “Darling, it’s too exciting,” she told friends. “I’m potentially going to be the Elsa Klensch of al-Qaeda!” “I told her she must be crazy,” says Treacy. “And you can’t go round saying that. You mean Al Jazeera, not al-Qaeda!”
At the Milan shows in February 2006, Blow told her old boss Anna Wintour that she intended to kill herself. She then began telling all her close friends.
Talk of suicide was offered conversationally, and was difficult to separate from her wit and sense of humor.Blow abandoned Milan and returned to London. “She was just struggling within herself,” says Wintour, “but even in that situation her spirit and ability to laugh were undiminished.” Wintour, Birley, and Newhouse arranged for her to enter a residential treatment center outside London. She went, but left halfway into the six-week course.Two weeks later, while her husband was out at a dinner for designer Vivienne Westwood, Treacy happened to drop by Blow’s London apartment—only to find her in a weak state, having overdosed on sleeping pills. With that first attempt to take her own life, Detmar placed Isabella under the care of the medical authorities.
Blow began a course of electroshock treatment, the controversial procedure that is once again gaining popularity as a way to manage bipolar depression. She told friends she felt as if she were losing her mind. The periods of relative normality grew shorter. “It’s like when you get a sore throat and you know that you’re going to get flu” was how she described the onset of depression. “You know it is coming, but you can’t do anything about it.”In April 2006, events took a turn for the worse. Blow was traveling unaccompanied to a treatment facility in West London when her taxi was stopped in heavy traffic on the A40 motorway. She got out, walked up a pedestrian overpass, climbed over the railing, and dropped 30 feet onto the road below. She broke both ankles. The seriousness of the incident would come to signal the start of a steeper phase in her decline. Friends say she began to withdraw from her old circle. Tatler began looking for a new fashion director. Designers stopped lending her clothes.“After all her disappointments, the depression fit naturally into place. She could have all the ideas in the world, but she knew she could no longer deliver,” says Robie Uniacke, an old friend. She began thinking not of how she would kill herself but how she wouldn’t. “Her certainty was absolute. I thought, There’s no way to get through to this person. She’s already on the other side.”Her ankle injuries did not, however, prevent her from setting off for Indian Fashion Week in August 2006, as a guest of the Indian Fashion Council. Her friend Tikka Singh, adviser for LVMH on the subcontinent, had arranged for Blow’s visit and hoped to collaborate with her on a new handbag. Condé Nast in London began to receive unusual calls: Blow, who was staying in a suite at the Imperial in Delhi, was running up a large bill and planning a trip to the Himalayas. Singh wanted to know who was picking up the check. Not us, said Condé Nast.In a further complication, Blow was mistaken by the Indian fashion press as being an official Condé Nast representative. Since there was great excitement over the launch of Vogue India, Blow was identified as a kind of envoy for Vogue, sent by management to research potential candidates for the editorship.“She’d become like a whirling dervish,” says Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Condé Nast in London. “She started giving interviews to the press. There was an article on the front page of the Hindustan Times with a big picture of Issie in a huge hat and the headline MAD HATTER BLOW ARRIVES IN INDIA TO APPOINT VOGUE INDIA EDITOR.” Before it went any further, Singh put her on a plane home.For three weeks she’d be on a high from the shock therapy, then she’d start to come down, go back to the hospital, then the cycle would start again. Friends felt Detmar might have been unable to deal with the situation in part because of a previous experience; Jonathan Blow, his father, had committed suicide when Detmar was 14 by drinking the weed killer Paraquat, a poison that causes the internal organs to slowly shut down; it is the method of suicide favored, oddly, by lovesick Hindus of Tobago.In the fall of 2006, Isabella decided to take flowers to her father’s grave at Doddington and, mirroring her grandfather’s suicide, checked into a nearby hotel. This time she took the precaution of calling Treacy to let him know she would be overdosing with pills—her “Marilyn Monroes,” as she called them. Treacy called Isabella’s Tatler colleague Kate Bernard, who found out that she’d booked a car on the magazine’s account, and traced her to the hotel, where her plan was thwarted. Other attempts took even more bizarre turns. One of Blow’s heroes, and a fellow manic-depressive, Virginia Woolf, drowned herself in 1941 by filling her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home in Sussex. Blow went to the river, but it was dry after the summer drought.On another expedition, she went back to the lake at Doddington, where her brother had drowned four decades earlier. She entered the water but found herself too buoyant to succeed. At one point she asked a veterinarian for tranquilizers for a horse that had broken a leg. That scheme failed when the vet wanted to see the horse first. She considered jumping off a bridge over the Thames in London, but upon learning that there were nets to catch jumpers decided that it would be too inelegant to become entangled.Earlier this year, during a weekend at Hilles, Blow borrowed her husband’s car late one night. Friends feared her disappearance signaled another attempt—and it did. She rammed the car into the back of a Tesco’s supermarket truck. The car was totaled, but Isabella was saved by her air bag and emerged from the wreckage unscathed. “I always hated Tesco’s,” she told Detmar.
Blow returned to India earlier this year with the actor Rupert Everett on a trip sponsored by ICI Dulux, the European chemicals giant, to select new colors and help promote the company’s textiles for saris. But her gloom didn’t lift. She walked out of fashion shows early. “One thing’s for sure,” she said. “I won’t die of boredom.”Blow went back to Delhi to look into manufacturing for the handbag she wanted to produce, and then to Goa to stay with Karla Otto. There was another overdose, on the beach, and yet another rescue. “It was just a question of time before she would finally succeed,” Otto says.
When she came back from India she underwent more shock therapy, resulting in a spectacular high. “She rang me quite late one night,” recalls Lucy Birley. “I thought she might have taken acid or something. She said she was buying a castle in Kerala and she would have a farm of white peacocks. We were going to lie on the balcony and she would wear a necklace with emeralds the size of bird eggs. It was like being plugged into a surreal film, extraordinary and dislocated from reality.”In March of this year, Blow was to fly to Kuwait to begin work on the first Arabian Beauty book. “She felt the U.K. was not really home for her anymore,” says Sheikh Majed al-Sabah, the financier of the project. “She was hoping that if any major magazine was going to come to the Middle East, she’d have strong contacts and knowledge.”Blow was the creative director and stylist. She invested her energy and dedication, getting designers excited about making something special and different. Photographers, too, were inspired by Blow’s vivid imagination and committed themselves to the production.“This will be my comeback,” she told friends.
But as the date for the trip drew close, the £10,000 that Isabella was expecting as an advance to cover the costs of the preparations had not come, nor had the plane tickets for Blow, her assistant, and the photography team. Finally, £5,000 was wired to London, along with two tickets to Kuwait. The sheikh had dropped Blow’s team and selected a Portuguese commercial photographer. He had also decided to use clothes stocked in his stores, Villa Moda. Blow set off for the Middle East anyway.“You need me more than I need you,” the sheikh allegedly told her, and gave her 20 minutes of his time before flying off to Milan. Blow was devastated.
With her vision in ruins, she took an overdose on the shoot and was hospitalized.“Issie insisted on specific outfits from specific designers. She insisted on a Hussein Chalayan dress that unfolds and nothing can be worn underneath. I cannot put our women in such dresses—dresses with total transparency,” the sheikh says. “And she didn’t have any special feelings for the brands I wanted to push.
She looked at it from a conceptual point of view. I look at it from a realistic point of view.”Back in England, the disappointment of the Kuwait trip pushed the fragile Blow to a new low. A few days later she had surgery to have an ovarian cyst removed. (In some cases anesthesia can trigger depression.) Another round of shock therapy didn’t kick in the way it had before. “It hasn’t worked,” she told Treacy.
On April 30, her sister Lavinia, who lives nearby, drove her three hours to London for the Vanity Fair photo shoot.
Two days later, Isabella sent a letter of wishes, a kind of will, to her long-suffering accountant. She told a friend that she had an “idea.” Many had heard of Blow’s ideas before and knew they harbored ill. Back in the kitchen at Hilles that Friday, she mentioned the same thing over the phone to Kate Bernard, but a visitor came in before she had time to elaborate. She promised to call back but did not.The following morning, Saturday, May 5, Lavinia went out for groceries and returned to find Isabella curled up on the bathroom floor. She’d been sick, the blue in her vomit suggesting something more toxic than sleeping pills. In the car to the hospital she confessed she had drunk weed killer in the field below the house. “She was worried she hadn’t drunk enough,” Lavinia says, but then, in a statement that is harder to interpret, Isabella tried to reassure her. “Don’t worry,” she said, “because I’ve sicked it all up.”The doctors in Gloucester said they couldn’t be sure how much of the poison she had ingested until tests came back from Birmingham. For most of that day and into the next, Detmar, Lavinia and Julia, Philip Treacy and his partner, Stefan, clung to the hope that she had taken less than a fatal dose. But the next day, Sunday, doctors at the hospital confirmed the worst: Isabella was dying. They could not say how long it would take, perhaps as long as three weeks, but the process under way could not be reversed. Philip and Stefan sat with her through most of Sunday. They laughed about Issie’s having forgone a hospital gown for an itchy and uncomfortable silver lamé shirt. “Since when did I ever care about comfort when it comes to fashion,” Blow reminded them.“She wasn’t depressed,” recalls Treacy. “Even as she was dying, she was making everyone laugh.” But she told him with resolve, “I can’t bear to look at my feet anymore.”
She didn’t mean the injuries to her feet from her jump the previous year. She meant that she couldn’t bear her depression—looking at her feet while lying in hospital beds.Close friends made arrangements to visit her; she made plans with Detmar. Everyone went back to Hilles for the night, planning to return the next morning, but Blow was weaker than they knew: she had taken several times the lethal dose.Isabella Blow passed away peacefully in her sleep a few minutes after five in the morning on May 7. Several days later, friends say, Alexander McQueen asked a medium to contact his friend. “Isabella is with her grandmother.
She is happy, and wishes everyone would not be so sad,” the medium told McQueen. Sometime later the medium called back with a new message from Isabella. “And by the way,” she had said, “my mother is not to have any of my hats or shoes.”
visit: The Isabella Blow Foundation
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