Fashion Galore! at Somerset House is a celebration of Isabella Blow’s life in clothes, a seduction as hardcore as her lipstick in Tamara de Lempicka red. She’s no longer with us, of course. When she got fed up with the world and everybody in it, she drank weed killer. Sometimes when I’m fed up, I wear Fracas, her favorite perfume.
“In the end I was just lips and a hat,” she said. But Izzy was always more than the MAC lipstick she designed (they wouldn’t let her call it Blow Job) and the Philip Treacy hats she wore to stop people from swooping in for air kisses. “Fashion is a vampiric thing. That’s why I wear the hats, to keep everyone away from me.”
While Isabella had her armor, I have a Please Don’t Kiss the Baby sign stuck on my Kelly bag, because hats mess up my hair. Besides, who wants to be loved by the undiscriminating?
I never met Isabella, but I caught glimpses of her enough times to notice what we had in common. And what we didn’t. She hated Egypt, and I know that I never want to go back to Cairo, even if it is the only place on the planet to get burnt orange toe paint.
The first time I saw her was in the Tatler office, where I’d gone for a summer job as a sub, but failed the test. “You’re not boring enough,” the editor told me, as he interviewed me in a closet. “We’ll find you something else.” I wondered if that meant samples to take home with me. Through a crack in the door, I saw a girl with her sweater open, revealing a black lace Rigby & Peller bra. The queen’s lingerie maker never had better publicity than this corrupt angel. “That’s Isabella Blow,” he said, anticipating my unspoken question.
In those days her name was always followed by the story of her grandfather, Jock Delves Broughton, whose decadent life was made famous by the movie White Mischief, about sex-mad cokeheads in Kenya.
Death always hung over Isabella. This can be seen in Fashion Galore! in scrapbooks and press cuttings about her aristocratic ancestors. When she was a child, her baby brother drowned in a puddle on the grounds of their ancestral home. After his death, her mother moved to London and her father moved on to a new family, disinheriting her.
They never lived in Doddington Hall, but in a smaller house on the grounds. Isabella was homeless in her heart, empathizing with the tramps sleeping rough in Hanover Square park opposite Vogue House. She made art her home, dressing up as a magical installation. “Always accentuate the head and the feet,” she said. Her feet belonged to Manolo Blahnik and her head to Philip Treacy, though she planned to have it sent to her father when she died.
Not exactly beautiful, at least in the classical sense, Isabella could have been the Duchess of Windsor on acid with a dash of dachshund on top. Except she didn’t need the acid. She had a love-hate relationship with her bipolar self. She must have known she was glamorous, but Crohn’s disease and her English teeth filled her with self-loathing.
The next time I saw her, she arrived hat-first to an art opening and effortlessly upstaged the artist Tracey Emin. “Who’s that?” Mr. Lash asked. I told him the story about Isabella Blow’s wedding dress, which was, like mine, designed by Nadia la Valle, a designer not heard from before or since. Isabella never managed to escape her marriage. Like Dorothy Parker, she could have left the husband and kept the name.
My last glimpse of her was through the window of her apartment in Eton Square. Her black head bowed over a pile of olives she was arranging on a plate, she looked like a sad majestic bird from an Edgar Allen Poe story, or the sculpture of her by artist-couple Webster and Noble that opens Fashion Galore!
A few weeks later she jumped off the Hammersmith flyover. She didn’t die that day, but she couldn’t wear Manolos anymore, a fate worse than death to a trivial but profound soul like Isabella Blow. It was only a matter of time before she finished the job and became a beautiful corpse dressed by Alexander McQueen, who joined her a few seasons later.
Before that, McQueen paid tribute to his mentor and muse in his show La Dame Bleu, creating a Bird of Light through which the models entered the runway dressed as Izzy lookalikes. This is recreated at the end of the Somerset House show. It reminds me of the moment in The Great Gatsby when Meyer Wolfsheim declines to go to Gatsby’s funeral, saying, “Show your friendship to the man while he is alive.” Or, reward the woman’s contribution to your career by offering her a job when you get the top job at Givenchy.
Next time I wear my white fur coat, I’ll spray it with Fracas and think of Isabella Blow.
Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!, November 20, 2013 – March 2, 2014, Somerset House
Read more about Vivien Lash in her evil twin Carole Morin’s novel, Spying on Strange Men