Isabella Blow, the late fashion icon who died in 2007 after poisoning herself with the weed killer, Paraquat, started her career in the early 1980s as Anna Wintour’s assistant at US Vogue. She was apparently known to clean her boss’ desk with Perrier. After returning to her native England in 1986, her subsequent roles included stylist and editor at publications such as British Vogue, Tatler, and The Sunday Times’ Style Magazine, though it was the eccentricity of her personal style and of the designers she is credited with discovering, such as Alexander McQueen (she purchased his entire graduate collection from Central St. Martins College) and milliner Philip Treacy that went hand in hand to create a legacy. That legacy is explored in the new show, Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at London arts center, Somerset House.
The first room of the exhibition showcases Blow’s family ephemera. Mixed with the portraits and Polaroids are newspaper clippings documenting Blow’s birth and infancy— regular fodder of the 1960s for aristocratic British families such as hers. In a video interview that plays in the same room, however, Blow explains that her Grandfather, Sir Jock Delves Broughton, the center point of the “White Mischief” murder scandal of 1941, squandered 700 years worth of her family’s wealth, and that she grew up of no great means. She attributes her obsession with beauty to “being brought up in a very ugly little pink house,” and closes a family photo album saying, “its a life gone.”
The rest of the exhibition speaks to the life she made for herself, and that she was able to create for others, through patronage and promotion. Homage is paid to Blow’s impeccable styling, and eye for models in a room with large-scale prints of her UK Vogue editorial collaboration with photographer, Steven Meisel, “Anglo-Saxon Attitude.” In the editorial, Blow introduced models Stella Tennant, Plum Sykes, Bella Freud, and Honor Fraser in quintessential London pub and street scenes. Of the 100+ wardrobe items on view—all now owned by heiress and fellow fashion devotee, Daphne Guinness—stand out pieces include Treacy’s crystal encrusted veils and sculptural headgear made of plexiglass, a piece from McQueen’s first collection based on Jack The Ripper, which he tagged with locks of hair under clear plastic labels, a hot pink burka printed with lime green teddy bears on it by Undercover by Jun Takahasi, and a piece included in McQueen’s 2008 collection dedicated to “Issie” after her death: a flowing, long-train gown made of pastel pink bird feathers, with a sculpted collar, which reached the jawbone of its model as it was first presented on the runway.
Akin to their sort of collaboration during her lifetime, Blow serves as a vehicle for the presentation of works by Treacy and McQueen, whose overwhelmingly successful 2011 exhibition, Savage Beauty, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum seems to have been the catalyst for subsequent museum exhibitions focused on fashion. The Met has since followed with shows featuring Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiparelli, and a look at the Punk movement’s influence on fashion; and currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art is a retrospective of designer, Jean Paul Gaultier. Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! is on view through March 2, 2014—the latest in a wave of fashion exhibitions, though one whose subject may be the progenitor of fashion’s most captivating leaders.