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July 26 2014

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Isabella Blow: Beyond the Eccentric

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2. Isabella Blow, 2002 (c) Diego UchitelCurator Alistair O’Neill only met the late Isabella Blow once. He was at an art opening with designer Julien Macdonald, one of the late, great Blow’s charges, whom he studied with at the Royal College of Art. “Isabella was wearing a famous Philip Treacy hat, which is in the exhibition. It had feathers around the eyes, which covered her nose and her mouth and her forehead,” he recalled. “I spent the evening talking to her and was completely fascinated. But all that I could concentrate on were her eyes, because I couldn’t really see her mouth. I could only just about listen to what she was saying, and I was just mesmerized by this image of these eyes being framed by the feathers. The combination of her intelligence and her laughing was really intoxicating,” he continued. “I’ve never forgotten that.”

On November 20, O’Neill, along with Shonagh Marshall and Central Saint Martins, will aim to bring the editor, patron, and muse’s work and wardrobe to life with the opening of Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at the Somerset House in London. Before her tragic suicide, in 2007, Blow was a pillar of London’s emerging fashion community. Having worked everywhere—from British and American Vogue to The Sunday Times to Tatler—Blow is credited with discovering such designers as Alexander McQueen (as the story goes, she bought his entire graduate collection after it walked down the Central Saint Martins Runway in 1992), milliner Philip Treacy, Jeremy Scott, and Hussein Chalayan, as well as models Sophie Dahl (whom she once described as a “blow-up doll with brains”) and Stella Tennant.

Alexander McQueen and Isabella blow

Aside from being a steadfast supporter of young talents (Treacy and McQueen both lived with her at one point, and she not only gave the designers financial and editorial support but also fed them ideas from her wealth of historical knowledge—fashion and otherwise), Blow, who came from a complicated aristocratic background, was known as a great eccentric—both in her behavior and her dress. Her infamous wardrobe comprised the most extreme pieces by all of the conceptual up-and-comers she helped along the way. And, of course, Treacy’s hats were her screaming signature. Following her death, her sartorial collection was to be sold at Christie’s to settle her estate, but Blow’s friend Daphne Guinness swooped in at the last minute and purchased every piece, because that’s how Isabella—or Issy, as she was known—would have wanted it.

O’Neill, however, did not want to simply paint Blow as an eccentric. “I thought it was important to distance Isabella from those literary ideas of the English eccentric, because they’re often quite tragic,” he explained. “And I’m not sure Isabella was fully tragic—she was quite brave, and very funny. She had a very bored and black humor.” Furthermore, Blow always wore her outfits—whether it be a metallic McQueen corset or an ensemble crafted from brightly hued garbage bags—in a deeply considered manner. “Isabella used her clothes, her hats, and her accessories as a means to modify and transform herself,” said O’Neill. “She had a great eye for silhouette, and her hats were almost a means of plastic surgery for her face, without going under the knife,” added Marshall. “She said they can lift you, they can make you look different, and I think that was something that she really indulged in.”

Isabella Blow, Vanity Fair, May 1, 2003In order to celebrate—and honor—the way in which she sculpted her daily looks, the curators studied images of the editor, and are displaying her collection just as she would have worn it. “The wonderful thing about Isabella Blow was that she lived in all her clothes—she wore them, and she really loved them all,” said Marshall. “Her shoes are worn to death. Some of the pairs are missing a heel, and I think that’s a great part of the story.”

Speaking of footwear, O’Neill stressed that shoes (usually Manolo Blahniks) were equally as important to Isabella as deliciously mad headgear. “She said that she always accentuates her head and her feet,” he told us. Even so, her toppers are an essential part of the show. “We’re at a point where a number of the dresses are ready, but they’re all missing their hats. And I have to say, I just can’t wait for the hats to arrive, because they really do transform, and complete, the outfit.” In addition to key pieces from the wardrobe that Guinness rescued from auction, the exhibition will showcase Blow’s collaborations with designers, as well as photographers such as Steven Meisel, David LaChapelle, and Sean Ellis. Set designer Shona Heath has created the show’s elaborate installations, and artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s 2002 portrait of Blow will also be on view. Crafted from fake moss, various bird carcasses, a lipstick tube, and the heel of a Manolo Blahnik shoe, projects a shadow of a well-hatted Blow’s severed head against the wall when properly lit.

Before her death, Blow had arguably fallen out of favor with the fashion set—she felt as though many of the designers she had helped had forgotten her, and that there was little place for her extreme fantasies in the increasingly commercial industry. “By the twenty-first century, contemporary fashion had moved on from the theatrical, which really defined her,” offered O’Neill. “I think at the end of her life, she was slightly out of step with what was going on in contemporary fashion.” That being said, Blow played an integral role in fostering the fashion industry’s great creative minds. And no doubt, had her life not been cut short, she would have continued to do so.

“I think it would be wonderful if people took away this sense of energy, and dynamism, and the wit that was Isabella Blow,” said Marshall of the show. “I think what we’re trying to convey is Isabella’s wider influence,” asserted O’Neill. “And we really hope that we can demonstrate that Isabella was fundamental in the development of British fashion.”

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! will be on view from November 20 through March 2 at London’s Somerset House.

Photos: Diego Uchitel; David LaChapella; Donald McPherson for Vanity Fair

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Dept. of Culture