It goes without saying that people who commit suicide frequently feel underappreciated; the late stylist and fashion editor Isabella Blow was no exception. When she killed herself in 2007 at the age of 48, downing a lethal dose of weed killer shortly after receiving a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, friends were quick to point out that she'd spent her final days depressed by how the world had received her.
Over a twenty-year career in the high temples of fashion, including stints at Vogue and Tatler, she discovered the fashion designer Alexander McQueen (who killed himself this year) and the milliner Philip Treacy. She made friends with everyone from Andy Warhol to Anna Wintour and sat in the front row of virtually every show she ever went to. Designers clamored to have her photographed in their wares.
By all standards, she was fashion royalty. But still she worried. She worried about money—she wondered why her famously brilliant eye never translated into a high-paying consultancy, the kind that muses like Carine Roitfeld got at Gucci and Amanda Harlech had at Chanel. She was angry about the intense fertility treatments she'd taken that had done no good whatsoever helping her to conceive.
Now, three years after her death, the world seems to be waking up again to Blow and her fabulous ideas about dressing.
John Galliano, the flamboyant head of Christian Dior, is producing a movie (in which he's rumored to be playing himself). Two biographies are imminent: Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow, co-written by Tom Sykes and Blow's husband Detmar Blow; and Isabella Blow: A Life In Fashion by Lauren Goldstein Crowe, a former contributor to Portfolio Magazine. There's even a play, "Blow By Blow," opening at the 11th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival later this month. Her close friend Daphne Guinness (currently carrying the mantle for fabulously outrageous dressing) eulogized her in the Financial Times over the weekend, in a poignant explanation of why Guinness had bought Blow's clothing collection, recently.
At a time when there's a growing trend of young female musicians—Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae, Beth Ditto, Fever Ray—who are becoming increasingly daring about their clothing choices (and not in the skin-baring sense of the word 'dare,' unlike the Britney/Christina generation of pop stars), Blow has become a much imitated reference point.
Many are not surprised. Reached by cell phone, Georgie Greig, now of the Evening Standard, formerly editor of Tatler, had no shortage of superlatives to heap on Blow. "Issie was a remarkable, charismatic, life-changing force who recognized genius and was unable to do anything that was dull. Everything was always exciting and never predictable. She was always seeking the best of what was beautifully interesting and what was interestingly beautiful." He declined to comment further, explaining that his own newspaper is in the process of putting together its own piece about the renewed interest in his former employee.
Click here to watch Fashion Television's tribute to Isabella Blow
Another editor with whom Blow worked—Michael Roberts, the current fashion director of Vanity Fair—was more forthcoming. "Anytime something eccentric happens in fashion, she's referred to," he said. "Fashion in America is incredibly bland. There are very few people who push the envelope. In Europe there's a background of these people moving fashion forward. Anna Piaget and Daphne Guinness are two examples, but you don't get many fashion eccentrics in America besides Lady Gaga, and all the Lady Gaga references I've seen seem to be regurgitated 'Isabella Blow.'"
Certainly Blow had a major influence on the 24-year-old-singer. One of Blow's most famous getups involved a stuffed lobster that she wore on her head. (Blow, who vacillated between great humor and great sadness, reportedly told a party reporter who interviewed her that she could still smell it as its legs dangled over her face.) Today, Gaga's crustacean love is all the rage.
"You don't get many fashion eccentrics in America besides Lady Gaga, and all the Lady Gaga references I've seen seem to be regurgitated 'Isabella Blow.'"
Part of what made Blow's eccentricity (a word she hated, for the record) so exciting was that she ought to have been an emblem of propriety. She was born into the English aristocracy, the daughter of Sir Evelyn Delves Boughton and his second wife. But tragedy punctured her childhood when her 2 year old brother drowned outside the family home, and her fractured home life probably contributed to her rebellious streak—as well as her relentless need to find approval in appearances.
At 20, Blow moved to the United States, working in Texas for the designer Guy Laroche, and then later on for Anna Wintour, who at the time was the creative director at American Vogue. "I loved coming to the office," Wintour later told New York Magazine. "I never knew what to expect. One day she'd be a maharaja, the next day a punk, and then she'd turn up as a corporate secretary in a proper little suit and gloves."
In 1986, Blow moved back to London, where she worked at Tatler and later met Detmar, an art dealer. At Tatler, she was known for being wildly inventive, with a key for spotting talent, if not great with the details. "She wasn't exactly a 9 to 5 person," said Roberts. "She was enthusiastic and full of ideas but she had an inner quarrel with practicality. They say that success is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration, and perspiration didn't really interest her. She inspired an enormous number of people. But you cannot live on inspiration. She realized that and it was a constant source of anxiety to her."
She seemed to do well enough with inspiration for fuel, however. Those following years, Blow would stumble onto the major talents whose fashion careers she would help launch: model Stella Tennant, designer Stella McCartney, Treacy, and, finally, McQueen.
To a large extent, McQueen and Blow were an ideal match. Both were absolutely obsessed with the statement an outfit could make, but both seemed interested in more than just conventionally beautiful things. But over the years, the relationship with McQueen became fraught.
When he was tapped at the age of 26 to be the designer of Givenchy (giving him entrée into the couture), Blow was shocked not to receive an offer to come work as a member of his staff. Later, when Tom Ford and the Gucci Group poached McQueen, and bought half of his company, Blow told friends she'd helped orchestrate the deal, then got the short shrift.
Blow was even unhappy with her own physical appearance—the very thing she spent so much time on. "She was not a great beauty. She hated her teeth," said Jean Bergantini Grillo, the playwright behind "Blow by Blow." "Toward the end of her life, she actually talked about going to the Middle East and writing for Al Jazeera. I think she would have liked the idea of the veil, and not having to show her face. The hats she wore were in some way about hiding her looks. I don't think she ever saw herself as beautiful."
"She was so open about how she felt," said Sykes, the biographer. "You'd say, 'How are you doing, Issie? Other people would reply, 'Fine, thanks.' She'd say, 'I feel like shit. I'm dreadful, and I want to kill myself. Do you know where I can get any heroin?'"
By 2006, her suicide attempts were frighteningly regular. She tried sleeping pills and horse tranquilizers. She threw herself off of a bridge in London, breaking both ankles but not achieving death. She crashed her car into the back of a Tesco's supermarket truck, but survived.
"It takes a lot of work to be the eccentric in the room," said Barneys New York Creative Director Simon Doonan. "It comes with baggage."
Still, he sees Blow as a perfect icon for a moment in which there's a reaction taking place against the kind of predictability that red carpet dressing and advancements in plastic surgery have produced. "I think people are waking up and realizing there's so much conformity," Doonan said. "Everyone looks like they're on the Real Housewives with fake boobs and fake tans and boring dresses. She sacrificed hotness for eccentricity and originality and individuality. She's a role model for stylish feminism."
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.