Isabella Blow: An Enchanting Woman Told Through Fashion

With the exception of fashion fanatics, the late Isabella Blow isn’t an immediate household name Down Under. That aside, the current exhibition at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum celebrates a captivating woman with an equally dazzling wardrobe.

You see her straight away. A visual array of plastic doppelgängers with distinct black bobs and rouge lips line the showroom. Outfitted head to toe in the fantastical world of the late style queen’s most personal wardrobe. Like a sea of fashionable ghosts they fail to emanate the same animation as the late Issie Blow, but the collection is unmistakably hers.

A celebrated editor, stylist, and all-round fashion philanthropist, Isabella Blow built the world of fashion a far weirder and wackier residence during her reign as a distinctly British global icon of the art form. Known for championing the careers of fashion protégés Philip Treacy, Hussein Chalayan, Julien Macdonald, Jeremy Scott, Sophie Dahl and Stella Tennant, her most notable discovery was arguably that of the late Alexander McQueen.

Image credit: vanityfair
Blow with dear friend Alexander McQueen. Image credit: vanityfair

Born Isabella Delves Broughton in 1958, she grew up on her family’s estate in Doddington, Cheshire. Surpassing familial tragedies during her upbringing, in 1979 she moved to New York to study ancient Chinese art where she became friends with prominent artists like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michael Basquiat and Roy Lichenstein. Beginning her career in fashion as Anna Wintour’s assistant in 1981 (then the creative director of US Vogue), Blow would continue to work across various industry avenues from Tatler magazine, and British Vogue to the Sunday Times, all the while nurturing young talent in fashion.

After struggling with depression and tragically committing suicide in 2007 at the age of 48, the legacy of Blow has amalgamated into a stunningly curated exhibition of some of her most famous garments by Shonagh Marshall. Fashion confidant and close friend of Blow, Daphne Guinness purchased the collection in 2010 and instituted the Isabella Blow Foundation as a means of saving the wardrobe pieces from auction.

Image credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences at the Powerhouse Museum
Image credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences at the Powerhouse Museum

While the collection features extravagant from the likes of McQueen and Viktor & Rolf, perhaps the most overarching theme is the sense of humble humanity behind the clothes. A prime example in the exhibition is the 3 identical Manolo Blahnik sandals, all different sizes and for the right foot sitting beside a lonely Swarovski-studded broken heel (presumably from an absent left foot). What is so romantic about the collection is the mix of imagination with the idiosyncrasies of Blow’s presence in the tears and tatters, not to mention the cigarette burns that are hidden in the clothes. The hawthorn print jacket showcased from McQueen’s graduate collection for Central Saint Martins (1992) features a visible cigarette burn at the waist.

Image credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences at the Powerhouse Museum
Image credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences at the Powerhouse Museum

Born into an aristocratic family, Blow lived to be an aristocrat in fashion, however her artistic flair exceeded any preconceived prestige of the blue-blooded. Blow had a signature style that celebrated sex and individuality. With typically cinched waistlines, and torsos that accentuated her breasts, her characteristically Blow silhouette was always topped with a Philip Treacy headpiece and sandals- typically Manolo Blahniks. A strong sense of her humour was expressed through her style. Once asked why she always wore hats she exclaimed:

“…to keep everyone away from me. They say, ‘Oh, can I kiss you?’ I say, ‘No, thank you very much. That’s why I’ve worn the hat. Goodbye.’ I don’t want to be kissed by all and sundry. I want to be kissed by the people I love.”

Image credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences at the Powerhouse Museum
Image credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences at the Powerhouse Museum

Amidst the stationary Blow mannequins are screens with video footage taken from interviews with Blow after fashion shows from her proteges. Here we see the vibrant heiress in her former glory, always with a poorly applied lipstick below an explosive Philip Treacy headdress of feathers or thorns that mesmerises. The final showroom features footage of a young Alexander McQueen with Issie frolicking around the Hilles estate she shared with husband Detmar Blow in Gloucestershire. Exhibition goers will appreciate the fairytale vision of Blow in her usual unconventional attire- hat and all, moving about the grand estate that really belongs in a Jane Austen novel.

While her style was eccentric it wasn’t lived as a performance, but was a significant part of her identity. Viewing this collection you discover a solid belief in all that she stood for in fashion as an art form:

“Fashion is about emotion… It’s about love, (Women) love clothes because they mean something to them—the day you met the man you love, the day you got married, what you did before you made love to somebody. It’s psychological and tied to the spirit of a woman.”

A truly stunning triumph, the spirit of Isabella Blow is evidently present in this exhibition, in an imaginative showcase that breathes the life of a woman who adored clothes, cigarette burns and all.

“Isabella Blow: A Fashionable Life” is open at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum through till August 28.