Isabella Blow exhibition – London

A poster advertising the Isabella Blow exhibition at Somerset House

A poster advertising the Isabella Blow exhibition at Somerset House

I’ve been in hibernation – and the blog has suffered. In London the winter months are categorized by shades of grey (not like the bestseller book). The sky goes from bruised purple to whitish grey, the colour of a string of dull pearls. So I spend many days lacking motivation. But today the sky was bright blue, sharp and hopeful. If I swallowed the sky today, it would taste like a refreshing and cool mint. So I’m writing again.

A few days ago I went to the Isabella Blow exhibition in London. If you don’t know Isabella Blow, she was a famous fashion stylist and editor, friend to British designer Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy. She was rebellious, outrageous and fearless. Her fashion sense was inimitable and daring. She wore stunning hats that were more like pieces of art. She loved textures and colours and mixing things that you wouldn’t necessarily think would go together. She was, for want of a better word, original.

What do you wear to the exhibition of a fashionista? I felt distinctly dowdy in my parka coat and comfortable boots. More like a mother going to the park than a woman who wears clothes because she utterly loves them.

A brief biography (excuse me if you already know it): Isabella Blow came from an aristocratic family, extraordinarily privileged. But her grandfather – who was accused of murder but acquitted – had squandered much of the family’s vast wealth. He committed suicide.

The tragedy didn’t stop there. Isabella’s little brother, Johnny, died at two years old in a shallow pool in the garden of the family home. Isabella, only five, was in charge of watching him at the time.

Despite her connections and her family’s name (she was born Delves Broughton), Isabella went to work because her father essentially cut her off from the inheritance. With her pedigree and eccentric tastes, she ended up working at Vogue and Tatler, becoming an assistant to THE Anna Wintour.

The exhibition showcased some of Isabella’s incredible clothes and reflected on her collaborations with many of the industry’s hottest young talent. According to one report, she bought all of Alexander McQueen’s graduate collection for £5,000 and paid it off in £100 instalments.

She loved Manolo Blahnik shoes and pink pens. Isabella was flamboyant and exotic, so it’s little surprise that she favoured bold colours and feathers – these were costumes more than clothes.

I was particularly struck by a hat – made by her lifelong friend Treacy – that was shaped like a huge ship with several billowing sails; it was made out of delicate black feathers.

There was also a beautifully cut Galliano jacket; a dress that resembled armour; and a hat shaped like pouty lips. There were lace corsets and early gothic McQueen designs that had a lock of hair sewn into the inside, a small reference to Jack the Ripper.

A spiky ankle bracelet that looked more dangerous than dainty had apparently left Isabella with several lacerations when she wore it. This was fashion for those who aren’t faint-hearted.

The most memorable and unbelievably beautiful dress was made from bird of paradise feathers, part of a collection made in tribute to Isabella after her death. The McQueen creation swished at the bottom, fanning out like a tail. It was stunning. It was topped off with a jewel-encrusted bird hat. Animal activists would probably want to stay away.

Isabella killed herself by swallowing weed killer at the age of 48 in 2007. She was diagnosed manic depressive and also had been told she had ovarian cancer. It was not her first suicide attempt. (McQueen, a close friend, killed himself three years later, in February 2010.)

Her husband Detmar Blow had told the fashion icon, on their very first meeting, that his father had killed himself by swallowing weed killer. One can only speculate…

(Note: no cameras are allowed inside the exhibition, which runs until March 2014. It’s half price on Mondays).

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