XXL: Isabella Blow – A Life Lived in Colour, Clothes, Charisma.

By Jo Phillips

Who better to represent our XXL season than the late Isabella Blow, Fashion Maven and one of the UK’s most colourful characters.  .Cent visited the Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! exhibition, (hosted by Somerset House) which runs until March 2nd 2013, to reflect on Blow’s contribution to the industry and discover a little bit more about what made this wonderful woman tick.

IB Silhouette

Curated by Alistair O’Neill and Shonagh Marshall, with installations by Shona Heath, the exhibit is a truly stunning showcase of the sheer breadth of Blow’s personal fashion collection crossing the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  Organised into segments of Isabella’s life; from her birth through to footage of La Dame Bleue, the S/S 2008 Alexander McQueen collection (that McQueen and Philip Treacy collaborated on) dedicated to Isabella after her untimely death in 2007.  There is a definite nod to the 90s era when Isabella et al were in their prime, through the main body of the exhibit, from the stripped down aesthetic running throughout to the reproduced issues of The Face and Tatler showcasing fashion shoots directed by Isabella.

Early years:
Born into English aristocracy, a display of family photographs depict Blow’s birth and upbringing in Cheshire, in 1950s post-war Britain.

Isabella dreamed of living in Doddington Hall, the family house built by her family, which sadly was never to be, and so she forged a career in fashion, first as an assistant to Vogue’s Anna Wintour in the US, before returning to the UK and working her way across the titles before finally becoming Tatler’s Fashion Director.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s brilliant sculpture, simply titled Isabella Blow, gives a clue to the stunning creativity which lies ahead in the rest of the exhibit. Containing elements central to Isabella’s life – woodcocks, lipstick, a Manolo Blahnik – all artfully arranged so that every time you look at it, there’s a different discovery to behold, before a realisation that in the silhouette is an incredibly accurate visual of Blow’s face.

Known as an eccentric both in her attitude to life and her unique style, Isabella’s main talent was her drive and ability to find and cultivate creative talent. It was Blow who saw the promise of Alexander McQueen, buying up his entire graduate collection (and paying off in instalments), it was Blow who spotted milliner Philip Treacy’s skill whilst the rest of fashion world pooh-poohed the thought of hats, again it was she who found, and celebrated other now known maestros such as Hussein Chalayan and Julien Macdonald.

Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy

This segment features both McQueen and Treacy’s A/W 1996 graduate MA collections- Dante from McQueen which was a dedication to Blow, whilst Isabella styled Treacy’s offering that same year, and which subsequently skyrocketed their careers and reputations as designers into the collective conscious.

Showcasing pieces such as Isabella’s painstakingly hand-made, lace wedding headdress and train, you can see why Isabella was such a fan of the two designers – not only for the experimental and flamboyant flair displayed, but the sheer craftmanship involved.

The English countryside was a massive influence on Isabella’s life – her love of birds, flowers, the surreal, and this influence is represented by a huge hedge installation whilst showcasing a number of her favourite designers such as Jeremy Scott, Comme des Garçons, Julien Macdonald, Viktor and Rolf, and Undercover alongside some simply outstanding Treacy and Erik Halley accessories.

IB Burkha

Personal Outfits and Style
Dean Rhys Morgan (whilst employed as her assistant during her Tatler years) captured Isabella’s view of her wardrobe, reportedly known as her protection: “She saw her clothing as armour, as a form of protection from the everyday – from the slings and arrows of daily life”

On display in this ‘personal’ area is a line up of bespoke Blow mannequins (which have more than a slight resemblance to her) fully clothed in iconic outfits which demonstrate Isabella’s distinctive, eclectic style and mixing of designer pieces. Quoted as saying “Fashion is a vampiric thing, it’s the hoover on your brain. That’s why I wear the hats, to keep everyone away from me”, a further demonstration of the way in which Isabella wore her clothing as a form of armour. It is also here that you get to see in minute detail that Isabella was a woman who wore her clothes, rather than preserving them.


Isabella at Work/Head & Feet
Taken from Isabella’s owns words: “Tip: Always accentuate the head and the feet”, this part of the exhibition subtly displays the importance that hats and shoes played in her life – rarely seen without a McQueen outfit, Treacy hat and Manolo Blahnik shoes. Sometimes wearing odd shoes in fact, and wrongly sized.  We discovered Isabella always wrote in pink ink; Pink.  Just because she could, and frankly, because pink amplifies life.
A simply breathtaking array of hats and shoes – some of my personal favourites were by Erik Halley – namely the lobster, and Benoit Meleard’s circle screw shoes which again confirm Isabella’s unique-ness that has inspired so many today, perhaps including current femme flamboyant Lady Gaga.

IB Underwater

Also in this section is one of Isabella’s most famous and successful photographic shoots with Steven Meisel for British Vogue December 1993, entitled Anglo Saxon Attitudes featuring Stella Tennant, Honor Fraser, Plum Sykes, Bella Freud and Lady Louise Campbell, literally the first time any of them had graced the pages of a magazine, further cementing Blow’s talent for spotting stars.

This final section in the exhibition displays La Dame Bleue, the S/S 2008 Alexander McQueen collection that Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy both collaborated on and dedicated to Isabella after her death. My favourite piece in this was the feathered dress.  Sculptural shoulders and fitting like a glove to the female form- skills McQueen and Treacy had both honed to perfection.

Walking around this segment, and soaking up the show footage, there is an palpable sense of sadness; at the loss of one of fashion’s greats. That the industry suffers a colourful, Isabella Blow shaped void yet, and possibly never to be re-filled in the same way. Yet, at the same time you feel a surge of delight to know she existed and cultivated such talents that we, the public have come to know and love. Her legacy lives, and will continue to live on through the creatives she discovered and those whom she has inspired.

XXL indeed.

*Photography by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty for Somerset House.

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