Portrait of Isabella Blow


November, 17 2013

At the hospital, on her death bed, Isabella told the nurses, “Google me. I’m important.”

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This Wednesday, November 20th, Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! will open at London’s Somerset House, featuring over one hundred pieces from Isabella Blow’s personal clothing collection, as well as an auction of some of her most famous portraits. Backed by Daphne Guinness, an industry is set to pay homage to the late fashion icon, fashion editor, and muse. But this fete also comes as a bittersweet reminder of her tragic path.

Following conversations with her husband of 18 years, Detmar Hamilton Blow, and photographer and former housemate, Donald McPherson, Style.com/Arabia explores the dueling sides of the eccentric Isabella, along with some exclusive, previously unpublished photos and a short film made by McPherson.

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“Ultimately, it was up to Isabella whether she wanted to live or die. Issie lived a full life,” begins Isabella’s widower, Detmar. “She was high-strung and difficult. Everyone tried as much as they could. They loved her but she decided she didn’t want to get old. The fashion industry is a cruel one like that.”

Before fashion’s ubiquitous peacocking—before Anna Dello Russo’s swan hats, before Lady Gaga’s nest headpiece, and even before Daphne Guinness started wearing Couture by day—there was Isabella, the mercurial paradox. Joyful and suicidal; guarded and laid bare; generous and money-paranoid; motherly and childless.

“I considered her like a mother and [Alexander] McQueen would probably say the same thing,” explains Donald McPherson, as we sought to unpack what part of Isabella Blow, as we celebrate her today, was “the myth”. As with most mythology, the genesis starts with a troubled family story.

The eldest of four children, Isabella was born in 1958 in London to a military officer, Major Sir Evelyn Delves Broughton, and his second wife, Helen Mary Shore. Despite family wealth and a cheerful character, her life was one marked with tragedy. Her youngest brother drowned in the family’s swimming pool at the age of two; Isabella was five years old at the time. Decades later, she would tell Detmar that she always felt blamed for his death. In her teenage years, her parents separated and ultimately divorced. Isabella, away at school at the time, received notice of her parents’ impending divorce by mail. “Even in those days, that was pretty shocking from what I’d describe as, for better or worse, socialite-type parents. But hers were the worst—utterly terrible.” (Incidentally, Isabella’s paternal grandparents, also socialites, were portrayed in the 1982 book White Mischief and the 1987 film of the same name.)

Although the mental conditions existed from the outset, Detmar points to her parents’ divorce in her teenage years as the primary catalyst for Isabella’s lifelong battle with depression. “Just look at her family. It was genetic. But as soon as her parents get divorced, her life is shattered. And then it’s all darkness.”

Isabella moved to New York in 1979 to attend Columbia University, where she studied ancient Chinese art for a year before leaving the program. She landed an assistant job with Anna Wintour, at that time Fashion Director of American Vogue, and thus began her fashion career and underground social life, which had her mingling with the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. “Isabella wasn’t too good at getting to the office before 11am,” Wintour recalled in an interview shortly after Blow’s death. “But then she would arrive dressed as a maharajah or an Edith Sitwell figure. I don’t think she ever did my expenses, but she made life much more interesting.”

In 1981, Isabella married Nicholas Taylor, only to divorce him two years later. “She tried to have children but Nicholas didn’t want them. She was having abortions. It was all a bit crazy,” commented Detmar. “I think that Isabella just wanted to have a child to settle herself.” But with her own instability and insecurities, that might have proven to be even more problematic. Detmar continues, “She never saw herself as beautiful, which was tragic. She thought she had an amazing body but a hideous face. Isabella didn’t really have a mother who loved her or maybe she’d have been more stable. It was quite hard for her to love herself.”

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Isabella returned to London in 1986 and in 1988, at a society wedding in Salisbury, she met the aristocrat and art dealer, Detmar Hamilton Blow. “I told her I liked her hat and she told me she liked my coat,” Detmar tells us. “It seems like such a spontaneous thing, you know, such a normal thing. But what charmed me was her voice. I just thought her voice was so intelligent and sensitive.”

They would quickly discover that they shared an eerily similar background: a privileged, aristocratic upbringing and a family history marked by suicide (both Isabella’s grandfather and Detmar’s father committed suicide). “It was quite unusual. There wasn’t much small talk. I remember talking about us being amusing people, like court jesters, because we were obviously unusual, both of us. I was quite interested in King Lear. You know, being intelligent and crazy and nobody taking you seriously.” Detmar concludes, almost hauntingly: “It was quite a prophetic thing for both of us.”

The two saw each other for the next two weeks, and Detmar proposed sixteen days later. “I didn’t really know her. We got married a year later—we had a long engagement just to make sure, but I knew my instincts were right. I think we both thought with our heads, and then the hearts followed. It was almost like an arranged marriage in some ways.”

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In London, Isabella was introduced to Philip Treacy, a milliner whose creation she wore at her second wedding. He became a lifelong friend. And then, in 1992, she discovered L’Enfant Terrible, Alexander McQueen, at Central Saint Martins. Isabella bought his entire graduate collection on a whim and supported him thereafter (to much skepticism initially, Detmar comments).

And this, then, is a central theme in her story. Along with her head armor was the fond relationship between her and “her kids”: McQueen, Treacy, and McPherson, but also Hussein Chalayan, John Galliano, models Honor Fraser, Stella Tennant, and Sophie Dahl, to whom she gave all the support she could. “They became her children,” Detmar notes. “She was a very mothering type. A lot of people want to be friends with famous people. Isabella liked to make people famous.”

But the ever histrionic Isabella was also impulsive. Recalls McPherson of the day they first met, circa 2001: “We met on a V Magazine photoshoot. She said liked me and my energy, and she invited me to share an apartment in Le Marais with her on the same day.” For the next four years, the two shared a Paris apartment once decorated by McQueen. As McPherson recounts several anecdotes of their time living together, what emerges is Isabella’s insatiable need for affection and a strong fascination with creative minds. “She would hold on to everything that was beautiful but she wasn’t just obsessed with fashion, she was obsessed with the person. Let’s take McQueen, for example—it wasn’t just about what he created. She was obsessed with his ability to create. She would say to me, ‘Donald, you’re a photographer. Lee makes clothes. Philip makes hats. What do I do?’”

“People wanted to be around her. But I don’t feel like she got the recognition she deserved. I think it’s amazing that she now has all this attention, that people are looking at her life under a microscope. But when she was alive, it wasn’t always like that,” explained McPherson.

Isabella’s life seemed to somehow consistently swing between a spirit of public grandeur and one of private loneliness and isolation. “All the love and all the money in the world wouldn’t have saved her, ultimately,” laments Detmar, who refuses to play the blame game today. After her death, Detmar wrote a book, Blow By Blow, to try to cope (“I wanted to understand what the hell had happened,” he says). Today, he prefers celebrating Isabella through anecdotes of her larger than life personality. “Once, this girl spilled red wine on [Isabella’s] new McQueen. Half an hour later, this girl’s handbag is on fire. And Issie was beaming and telling me ‘I put my cigarette in her bag.’”

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The Hilles mansion in Gloucestershire was Detmar Blow’s family estate. It became a meeting point of society figures such as Princess Michael of Kent; Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York; and photographers such as David La Chapelle and Mario Testino. And it was here where Isabella’s unconventional persona and nurturing personality frequently collided. (Incidentally, Isabella was known to be an excellent cook and a talented gardener.)

Recalling some of his experiences at the Hilles estate, McPherson: “I was at dinner there one weekend—she used to have lots of parties at this house. We were there with numerous artists and my girlfriend at the time. A local guy delivered something to us and he came on his horse. Isabella said, ‘Bring your horse in. Let’s take a photo!’ So I took a photo of my girlfriend on a horse on this William Morris carpet which cost millions of dollars. Issie’s mother-in-law didn’t let her get married in the house because she didn’t even want people walking on the carpet.”

Detmar and McPherson both reminisce about how Isabella, shortly before her death, took an interest in the Middle East region and the Middle Eastern woman. (Detmar fondly recalls the time when Isabella famously wore a pale-pink burqa to a Dior fashion show in Paris in January 2003.)

McPherson recounted, “I met [Kuwaiti royal] Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah at the Ritz in Paris with Issie. He was with [Condé Nast International Chairman] Jonathan Newhouse, and Issie was very good friends with Jonathan and his wife. They supported her so much. She became friends with Sheikh Majed and we did a photoshoot with him and Daphne Guinness celebrating Manolo Blahnik. A few months later, Issie had an idea to go to Kuwait and photograph the Al-Sabah family. We were the first people to go to Kuwait and photograph them in their palaces.”

The story of Isabella narrates a person who styled her stories as she lived her life: on impulses, concepts, and encounters. But despite her loyal nature, Isabella Blow suffered personal heartbreaks. Some cite McQueen’s lack of professional support to Isabella after his namesake brand was bought by the Gucci Group as an example, but along with his own dramatic conclusion, it will forever stay a subject of debate. To Detmar, Isabella was something of a fish out of water at the tail end of her life. “She couldn’t see herself as an old woman. She lived life so fast. She died at age 48 but she lived a life of, like, six people. It was a very full-on life.”

Isabella Blow was less of an editor than an influencer. She was not a patron, she was fashion’s human art piece. She was McQueen and Treacy’s Northern star, and a maximalist on set as well as in her daily life. But there was a fundamental disconnect that could never quite be bridged. And thus, the mythology of Isabella Blow—a creature consumed by love and beauty, yet ultimately destroyed by her own feeling that she lacked it.