Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!

Isabella Blow at the American Embassy, 1998 (c) Roxanne Lowit

Isabella Blow at the American Embassy, 1998 (c) Roxanne Lowit

“This exhibition is, to me, a bittersweet event. Isabella Blow made our world more vivid, trailing colour with every pace she took. It is a sorrier place for her absence.” – Daphne Guinness

Known for her original wardrobe, love of outlandish headwear and a permanently lipsticked pout, Isabella Blow – part-mentor, part-fashion editor, and part-personality – was one of Britain’s last true eccentrics. In 2013, where social media has taken self-fashioning to the next level and the over-proliferation of imagery, it’s hard to imagine anyone rivaling Blow’s style and authenticity.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! is a new exhibition at Somerset House which charts her life, work and influence in the British fashion industry until her death in 2007. It is an important exhibition, and one that almost didn’t happen at all, as Blow’s family came close to auctioning her wardrobe to pay her death duties. Thankfully Daphne Guinness, close friend and fashion legend in her own right, bought it all. Several years later, it has been gathered into a stunning exhibition.

Born Isabella Delves Broughton in 1958, Blow’s birth to high society parents was heralded by an announcement in the Evening Standard. However, her upbringing was decidedly unglamorous. Unable to live in the high-maintenance main house of their estate, Doddington Hall, due to financial constraints, her family instead inhabited a small house in the grounds. Blow recalls in one of the exhibition’s videos that they ate cheap food, and her father refused to turn the heating on. After working menial jobs around London, she gained entry into the fashion world by interning for Anna Wintour at US Vogue. The rest is history.

Unsurprisingly, as Blow was best known for her relationships with young British designers Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen – whose MA collection she famously bought and paid for in weekly installments – their work features heavily in the exhibition. Though both designers are celebrated for their high fashion appeal (and price tags to match), the exhibition shows their humble beginnings in the 1990s and the hand Blow had in guiding their careers. The archive garments from their early collections are a rare and welcome sight.

The exhibition is full of wonderful anecdotes: from the time Andy Warhol spotted her wearing odd shoes in New York City and invited her to dinner, to her marching Hussein Chalayan down to see Mrs. B. at Browns boutique with his 1993 BA collection. This isn’t a show about the luxuries of fashion, the sky-high prices and stylish parties. It’s about one woman’s imagination, her nurturing spirit and her boundless creativity.

Designed by award-winning architectural firm Carmody Groarke, it is also a visual feast: mannequins pose in alcoves full of curiosities, from taxidermy to a two-foot-tall fairytale castle hat. Placed at the forefront are the clothes, all exact outfits worn by the woman herself, and presented on mannequins custom-made by renowned set designer Shona Heath.

Near the end of the exhibition, two rows of black-clad mannequins in screened crates form a kind of walkway, drawing the viewer down towards a sculpture of a fountain made up of flashing lights. Those who know Blow’s history may understand this as a kind of visual metaphor. And indeed, as you descend the stairs at the end of the walkway, the text guiding you turns sombre: ‘’After Isabella’s untimely death by her own hand…”

As a project which may act to bring a sense of closure to the friends who loved her, it is clear that those behind the exhibition did not wish to dwell on Blow’s years of darkness – her battle with infertility, diagnosis with bipolar disorder and ovarian cancer, and her intensifying depression are not addressed. Blow attempted to take her own life several times before she succeeded, passing away on May 7th, 2007.

Despite the exhibition’s many successes, one can’t help but wonder if it suffers for skimming over her personal struggles. In the years leading up to her death, Blow, famously candid about her mental health and planned suicide, would tell friends that she felt abandoned by those whose careers her hand had helped to nurture, as well as by the magazines she had worked for. There is little mention of this in Fashion Galore! and it feels somewhat like the elephant – or giant Swarovski crystal-encrusted lobster – in the room.

Speaking in an interview with SHOWStudio, photographer Nick Knight’s online broadcasting company, Guinness voices her concerns about ending the exhibition in a negative light. As you walk past heavy black curtains displaying a faded image of Blow, back to the camera, and into the last space, the final piece puts Guinness’s fears to rest. Shot at Doddington Hall with models clad in the outfits exhibited, the film by Ruth Hobgen is the perfect note to end the exhibition on. Celebratory, affirming. Blow’s spirit immortalised.

/ EMMA HOPE ALLWOOD / KCL / CO-EDITOR


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