What is your recollection of Isabella Blow? Is it the stark contrast of pale English rose in bright red lipstick and the jet-black bob haircut? Or perhaps it is the array of striking hats that doubled as works of art that first comes to mind? Maybe it’s the names of one of the many fashion discoveries (Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy and Sophie Dahl to name a few) she unearthed and vehemently championed? But who was the real ‘Issie’ behind the show stopping hats, lipstick slicks and glamorous yet ethereal presence? If anyone is best placed to reveal this, it is Blow’s husband, Detmar. In this frank and snappily written biography, Detmar Blow sets out to reveal the woman behind the image.
An awful and tragic accident during Isabella’s childhood opens the book and sets the scene for the tumultuous path that her life subsequently follows. Such is the gravity of the situation that it perhaps goes some way to explaining some of the demons that clearly haunted Blow from an early age. Another dominant thread that is carried throughout the book is a lack of money. Despite being the daughter of a Lord and stemming from the Delves Broughton line of aristocracy, there is a permanent shadow of insecurity shrouding Isabella as she struggles to secure both a roof over her head and a stable income. Stately ancestral homes are sold or bequeathed elsewhere and jobs in the fashion world – although statement making – can be best described as temporary. She was essentially an upper class girl from good stock but with no significant means – a far from ideal situation given her circle of friends and family and general approach to life. Detmar relays on several occasions his late wife’s penchant for spending, which was driven in equal parts, it seems, by generosity and frivolous spending.
Connections abound aplenty in Isabella’s life; by virtue of family ties alone, Isabella is the granddaughter of a key character in the real life White Mischief Happy Valley murder scandal that rocked Kenya and the UK in the 1940s and the model Honor Fraser is a cousin. Even in death, Detmar’s co-author, Tom Sykes, is revealed to be the brother of socialite Plum Sykes who had an early career as an assistant to Isabella long before she herself became the darling of the New York social scene and a best-selling novelist. The glamour of the various eras that Isabella glides through is evident as the book progresses and the cast of colourful characters who pass through Isabella’s life reads like a who’s who of the worlds of fashion, music and English society. The Blows hang out with the likes of Bryan and Lucy Ferry, Elton John and David Furnish, Madonna and many others, whereas the roster of Isabella’s former bosses include Anna Wintour, Andre Leon Talley, Tatler, British Vogue, The Sunday Times, Swarovski, Du Pont.
The love affair between the Blows spans 18 years from a chance meeting at a society wedding up to Isabella’s death in 2007. Although they were engaged within 20 days of meeting, in their later years together, their time was punctuated by affairs, separation and reconciliation. The (many) disappointments and losses that Isabella endured are also laid out. A major theme that Detmar returns to throughout the book is of that of the lack of proper – and most especially, financial – recognition that eluded Isabella whilst she was still alive.
Keen fashion observers will be eager to follow the details of the famed relationship between Alexander McQueen and Isabella, snippets of which are scattered mainly in the second half of the book. The shift in their friendship is a revelation if your main knowledge of the pair is through the mentoring initially cultivated by Blow. In reality, their relationship hits stumbling ground in the mid 1990s by which time McQueen – himself troubled by his own personal angst – has far exceeded his discoverer in terms of fame, wealth and plaudits.
The manic depression that beset Isabella in her final years dominates the end of the book. She makes four unsuccessful suicide attempts in the space of two months and is determined to follow this path, though Detmar repeatedly tells her that he will ‘not make it easy for her to die’. Isabella does of course succeed in her quest for death and the final chapters are foreboding as it outlines her utter despair and desperateness.
Although this is the re-telling of Isabella Blow’s life by the person who most probably knew her best, by the end there was still a feeling that there was more left unsaid and the enigma that was Isabella Blow is still, partly, unreachable.
Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow , £12.38 from Amazon