Isabella Blow had an eye for fashion and irreverence for all things dull. She was known for her flamboyant style and gained notoriety for discovering some of the biggest names in British fashion (a skill Vogue’s Hamish Bowles described as “truffling for talent”). The retrospective at Somerset House chronicles her influence on designers such as Phillip Treacy, Alexander McQueen, Julien McDonald and Hussein Chalayan, all of whom she spotted on the catwalks of graduate shows and championed throughout their careers. Isabella was a patron and a muse to some of Britain’s most groundbreaking designers and this exhibition pays testament to her foresight.
The show is captivating as it follows not only the story of Isabella as a person but documents an historic moment in British culture. Isabella was a pioneer of fashion during the 1990s, the age of ‘cool Britannia’ and the clothes on display are appropriately forward thinking. When she saw Chalayan’s 1993 ‘The Tangent Flows’ collection for example, she fell instantly in love and took it to Browns on South Molten Street in plastic bin bags to persuade them to stage a window display. There are twelve rooms in the exhibition, over two floors showing some of the most stunning and flawlessly crafted designs I have ever seen. Brilliantly, the exhibition does not restrict the designs behind glass cases and it is possible to examine every piece within millimetres. Alexander McQueen in particular was a master of giving his clothes perfect finish and this is the best way to appreciate his fine detail; the feather-work of a full length feather gown from his S/S 2008 collection for example had me in awe.
Isabella’s character is everywhere in the exhibition, from her old Manolo Blahnik shoes worn by the mannequins to their red lips (a nod to her signature style). The clothes in the collection are accompanied by videos of her speaking and it soon becomes clear why designers found her so mesmerising: she was electric, energetic and charmingly funny. The exhibition is humorous and littered with reminders of her eccentricities. She lived with her head in the clouds following a bohemian upbringing in an aristocratic family and anecdotes throughout give a sense of how highly Isabella regarded fashion and how money was no object in the pursuit of style: she once bought McQueen’s entire collection from his 1992 MA show, repaying him £100 a week to receive a garment every month. Isabella was a party girl; the exhibition displays the guest book from her country house, filled with comments from high profile celebrities who attended her debauched parties. Damaged stilettoes and cigarette burned McQueen coats displayed in the exhibition reveal how her clothes bore the brunt of her social life!
Isabella was not just an eccentric, she had substance as well. Her editorial work for major fashion publications such as Vogue, Tatler and the Sunday Times Style Magazine accompany the clothes and give the impression of a woman who was incredibly knowledgeable about the industry, as her editor at Tatler explained, she was “an academic with a punk rocker’s anarchic sense”. It is fitting for the exhibition to be such a positive and vibrant tribute to Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen, who committed suicide in 2007 and 2010 respectively. While their tragic biographies give the show an undeniable poignancy, it is their fashion legacy that visitors will remember. This is a wonderful retrospective of Isabella Blow and seriously worth visiting in its last two weeks, if for no other reason than to see fabulous Alexander McQueen gowns and Philip Treacy hats in the flesh.
By Ruby Radley