Notes on ‘Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!’

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I am raking my brains trying to remember when I first became aware of Isabella Blow. It certainly wasn’t through her stint at the Sunday Times or at Tatler or even at Vogue. In fact, last week was probably the first time I had ever seen any of her styling work, never mind her written words. Blow certainly wasn’t a household name in the world in which I grew up in. Yet, she feels very much like a household name to me personally, and I can’t even remember how; after all, I was probably still attending primary school in Ireland when she was at her most prolific and influential on the 1990s London fashion scene.

Yet, seemingly, for anyone with even the mildest interest in fashion, beyond women’s mags and Topshop, Isabella is an icon. She is fashion. She embodies what it means to be fashionable: to be cutting-edge, to be avant garde and to be glitteringly glamorous always.

While Blow is no longer with us (she committed suicide in 2007), somehow it doesn’t feel quite right to say was – ‘she was fashion’ – because Blow’s legacy is enduring and so endlessly fascinating that it is almost as though we haven’t quite accepted that she is gone. With bloggers continuing to wax lyrical about her style and a plethora of books celebrating the late fashion editor, her influence is still widely and completely felt.

Blow was just one of these people you read about, most likely in Sunday supplements, and then in fashion magazines and later on the internet. And I guess, I fell in love with her and her crooked red lipstick a little bit, and probably like most, even though it is quite ridiculous considering her extraordinary background and talents, identified with her in some way.  Perhaps ‘identify’ is the wrong word, but I so admired her desire to stand-out, to be different and to be at the edge; in short, to be fabulous, in the full punchy sense of the word rather than in the bland way in which it is bandied about nowadays. And Issy, as they called her, was fabulous. She sparkled.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at Somerset House celebrates her innate sparkle. Indeed, on the upstairs floor, a video plays on loop of Blow talking about a fashion show and her face quite literally twinkles all over (the fallout of her sparkly eye shadow). Here, she demands that we ‘need [our] eyes excited’.

Through the course of the exhibition, we learn of Blow the patron who discovered the inimitable Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy – in doing so, helping to makes hats fashionable again. We learn of her preference for pink ink when writing notes, her fondness for cat-eye sunglasses (something I share with Blow) and her partiality for mismatched shoes.  We finally get to study her editorials up close and catch a glimpse of her in interviews for trendy magazines and chatting gregariously about models on TV screens. Fashion Galore! gives us an insight into her vision. Hers was historically rich – she particularly loved Medievalism – strange and beautiful all at once, and more than just tinged with a Surrealist playfulness.

And then, we wander among her worn clothes:  mostly Treacy hats, McQueen dresses and pointy Manolos. Her taste was exquisite. She liked textures – crocodile skin, crochet, feathers, satin, sequins, plaid, brocade, fur – and hats, of course. The hats were what made her stand out, both literally and figuratively, and gave her the sort of lofty grandeur never wholly realised by her tarnished aristocratic background.

Yet despite the intimacy of the exhibition and the painstaking attention to detail, there is the aching sense, as Sarah touches upon, that we are left with nothing but a whole wardrobe of clothes and no one to wear them. And maybe, that’s why this exhibition is called ‘Fashion Galore!’ because ultimately it’s just fashion. While we become acquainted with a woman who was warm, good-humoured, talented and loved, this exhibition does not give any inkling of her inner torment. Due to the high volume of McQueen on display here, it is impossible not to draw comparisons between this show and the sublime Savage Beauty at the Met in 2011 (see my post here). Without being blunt or blatant in anyway, somehow this exhibition managed both to celebrate the tremendous talent of McQueen and at the same time, give a potent insight into his inner malaise. Where Savage Beauty troubled and haunted me to my very core, Fashion Galore!, on the other hand, left me feeling somewhat empty.

Of course, Fashion Galore! does not set out to discuss Blow’s personal life, and that is highly understandable. Curator Alastair O’ Neill explicitly states that this is just about the wardrobe.  But as we watch the final two videos – the McQueen/Treacy show in her honour and the fashion film featuring models wearing her clothes – one becomes keenly aware that the clothes are nothing without the wearer.

As a final note, returning to the strong McQueen strand within the exhibition (Fashion Galore! reminds us once again of what a extraordinary talent he was), arguably, we understand just what it was about McQueen’s clothes that appealed to Isabella so much. I like to think that McQueen’s  wildly and intensely beautiful vision of sabotaged splendour – corsets, tails, admiral buttons, ripped lace – spoke to Blow on a deeply personal level, even recalling the dusty regal glamour of her ancestor’s crumbling castle. Blow described McQueen’s first collection, ‘Dante’, as ‘romance, sadness, joy’ – in a way much like her life.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! continues at Somerset House until 2 March 2014. See here for details.

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