Isabella Blow worked for many years as a fashion editor for both the Sunday Times and Tatler magazine in the UK, having landed her fashion break as Anna Wintour’s assistant during a brief stint in New York.
Blow was properly posh and intriguing – she grew up in a castle, and her grandfather was Sir Jock Delves Broughton, who was implicated in the Happy Valley society murder in Kenya. A flamboyant dresser, Blow thought nothing of tottering into the office in giant Vivienne Westwood platforms, a low-cut brocade bustier and serious jewels, and had been known to purposefully smear her red lippie in order to distract attention away from her teeth.
She experienced great creative highs but perhaps even greater depressive lows. In her final years she struggled with the breakdown of her marriage and an ovarian cancer diagnosis. She died by her own hand. After several failed suicide attempts including jumping from a motorway flyover bridge, Blow finally succeeded in poisoning herself in 2007.
Until then Blow was a tireless champion of young designers, most famously “discovering” Alexander McQueen. In 1992, she was so taken with his student graduate collection that she bought the entire thing.
Blow was the first fashion insider to encourage the brilliant milliner Philip Treacy, and she subsequently became his muse, inspiring – and wearing - many of his braver hats, including the neon plastic disc that features in the promos for the Powerhouse exhibition. Others were shaped like horns and a giant lobster, with one featuring her own name floating in mid-air.
The sight of Blow at fashion events sporting such things was one of the industry’s more joyful aspects. Guinness, one of Karl Lagerfeld’s favourite dressers, is no less flamboyant.
Guinness too is a fan of hats, and has said that she sees fashion as armour against the world. The dazzling sequins by local duo Romance Was Born that she wore to the exhibition's afterparty on Wednesday night could well have been about that. Guinness’s jewellery was by Melbourne designer Emma Abrahams - her Heart of Bone silver rings with gothic overtones have also been worn by Jean Paul Gaultier.
I asked Guinness about all this, and she told me, “Creativity, design talent, that’s what I love about the fashion industry, the rest of it not so much.”
On May 27, Guinness will officially cross over into music – she’s releasing her first album, Optimist in Black, produced by Tony Visconti, who worked with David Bowie.
Until then, it’s all about the promoting the exhibition. Blow was one of her best friends and after she died, Guinness, who isn’t short of a bob (one of the beer heirs, used to be married to a Greek shipping magnate) stepped in to buy Blow’s fashion archive in its entirety to prevent it being sold at auction.
We’re lucky enough to have in Australia thanks to a partnership with Westfield and the Woolmark company – Blow was a great fan of the fibre, and several important pieces in the collection are made of wool.
“It’s the stories behind the clothes give an exhibition life,” says curator Shonagh Marshall. “I think because of Isabella’s tragic end, there was potential for it to feel sad or even macabre, so we wanted to begin with the opposite, to speak of her wit and sense of fun – which was enormous.”
Hence the first outfit we see is couture by Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, which Blow bought for close to 35,000 French francs, then attempted to expense to the Sunday Times. “She wasn’t foolish,” says Marshall, “she knew she probably wouldn’t get that money but she gave it a go! For me, that really sums her up – the gung go attitude.”
“My favourite piece are always the odd ones, not the shiny popular ones,” she says. In the first section of the show, there are three right-foot shoes, all in different sizes: 37, 37.5 and 38. I don’t know and we will never know. For the person who comes to see the show, and perhaps doesn’t know much about Isabella, it’s a really nice way to understand the magnitude of what was left. Isabella wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to bequeath this dress or this hat to a museum because I think they best represent me’ – and that does happen - but this was something quite different. This was couture dresses and important archival pieces by McQueen, but it was also false eyelashes fluttering loose in the bottom of a box, handbags filled with receipts, the real stuff of life that she had amassed.”
Isabella Blow: A Fashionable Life shows at Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, until August 28