In death as in life, fashion editor and muse Isabella Blow continues to fascinate. Dana Thomas reviews two new biographies of her unusual and exotic life.
British fashion editor Isabella Blow did everything in extremes. When she wanted to liven up a party, she’d flash her ample bosom. When she wanted to do a fantastic magazine shoot, she’d run up impressive expenses—she once submitted a £50,000 ($78,000) bill “for a very small ruin that really was a must,” a Condé Nast record. (She was not reimbursed). When she got married, to British socialite Detmar Blow, she wore a purple medieval gown, an elaborate maharajah-like necklace, and a gold crown headdress with lace filigree by a then-unknown millinery student named Philip Treacy.
When she was up, she was grand fun, a total delight. “A little ray of sunshine,” her teachers used to say. But when she was down, there were no lower depths. Eventually, the dark overshadowed the light, and she succeeded in taking her own life at the age of 57 by drinking weed poison at her country home. It was the same way and at the same place that her estranged husband’s father killed himself decades earlier.
Two books were published about her last month: Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow, a memoir by her widower, the British contemporary art dealer Detmar Blow, with the assistance of journalist and family friend Tom Sykes, and Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion, a biography by former Time magazine fashion writer Lauren Goldstein Crowe, which has been optioned by Swedish filmmaker Anders Palm for a feature film.
Startlingly, both have the same cover image of Isabella peering through a black feathered hat. And both generally recount the same tale: a British aristocratic girl born into privilege after the money had run out and raised by severe, autocratic parents who did what they could to extinguish her inner light. Her rebellion was to recreate herself as a dynamic, eccentric fashion creature, dressed in the most extraordinary get-ups and always topped off with a fabulous hat. These were most often by young talents she “discovered” and championed, such as designers Alexander McQueen, Jeremy Scott, Julien MacDonald, and milliner Treacy. I remember the first time I met her, at a Jeremy Scott fashion show in Paris in 1998, she was wearing an ensemble by Belgian designer Haider Ackermann that had extra sleeves and pant legs sprouting from it. “Isn’t it fabulous?” she bellowed, taking me by the arm. “He is such a talent, I have to take you to his studio.”
Driven to achieve—mostly out of a fear of being broke and a desire to live like her landed gentry ancestors—Isabella worked her way up from an assistant to a rising American Vogue editor named Anna Wintour in New York in the 1980s to the fashion director for the Sunday Times in London in the 1990s, reshaping fashion along the way. But soon enough, her “raging, wild beast” mania as she called it was overtaken by suicidal depression.
Each book has its holes that the other fills in. Blow breezes over the fact that Isabella’s grandfather Sir Jock Delves Broughton was tried and acquitted for the 1941 murder of his second wife’s lover, the Earl of Errol, in Kenya. Crowe rightly fleshes out this fascinating tale, as recounted in the book, White Mischief, and shows how much it affected Isabella’s father’s life, and thus her own. Blow, on the other hand, talks about his wife’s frustrations in trying to conceive a child, recalling how Issie (as she was known to her friends) had suffered a miscarriage and may have had abortions during her brief first marriage, and later, when married to Blow, underwent fertility treatments with no success, all the while buying clothes for the children they never had together. Crowe makes no mention of the fertility treatments—perhaps due to British privacy laws—but points out that Blow himself did have a son with his mistress after he and Isabella separated in 2004.
Crowe’s book is exhaustively researched—she conducted more than 100 interviews, including with Isabella’s closest friends Philip Treacy, Lucy Birley, and Detmar Blow’s mother and sister—and it is a comprehensive study not only of Isabella’s life and career but also of the Cool Britannia years of the 1990s, when British fashion was its most influential, in large part thanks to her. As vivacious and fast-paced as Isabella herself was, A Life in Fashion is packed full of important back story of her family, friends, and employers and sprinkled with revealing first-person moments, like when Crowe ran into her at a London fashion show in 2004: “Isabella sat down next to me in the front row, introduced herself and said, ‘I need a man. I am getting a divorce and I am not very good on my own.’ It wasn’t yet 10 a.m.”
Blow’s is a far more intimate portrait. Based largely on his diaries, which he has kept since 1980, it is rich in detail and emotion—at least as much emotion as a well-brought-up Englishman can allow himself to show. He recalls meeting her at a wedding at Salisbury Cathedral in 1988—she arrived late, dramatically dressed in “an enormous hat festooned with giant black ostrich feathers, bright-red lipstick and a purple Katharine Hamnett coat dress”—and deciding almost immediately to marry her.
Together, they lived a large, cosmopolitan life, jetting off to exotic locales for work and for holiday—Detmar’s mother is Sri Lankan and lives in Kandy—and socializing non-stop, usually with bold-faced-name friends, Elton John, Bryan Ferry, and Rupert Everett, whom Isabella had known since they were teenagers. The Blows were deeply involved in the contemporary art world—she gave me a catalogue of a show she loved, tellingly called The New Neurotic Realism—and eventually opened a gallery called Modern Art, which Isabella was particularly proud of—she talked it up at every moment possible. All the while, she was producing extraordinary fashion shoots for British fashion magazines, and pushing fashion design and photography to new creative heights.
When he went to see her the last time in the hospital, he writes, “I suddenly wished I had brought more flowers, many more, all the flowers in the world, a whole roomful of them.”
On the page, it all feels unsustainable, and it was. They were both exhausted, and Issie slid into a bout of depression from which she never recovered. Blow talks of his frustrations in trying to find the right treatment for her—eventually she underwent electric shock therapy—and you can hear his anger and sadness in recounting her half dozen suicide attempts. When he went to see her the last time in the hospital, he writes, “I suddenly wished I had brought more flowers, many more, all the flowers in the world, a whole roomful of them.”
Unfortunately, neither author convincingly explains why Issie suddenly turned from moody to suicidal—and it does seem in both books that it was an abrupt change as opposed to a gradual, inevitable slide. Blow acknowledges that Isabella was bipolar and that it went undiagnosed and untreated for far too long, but he doesn’t specifically offer it up as a reason for her to start saying, “I want to die.” Both authors talk much about childhood trauma and betrayal—by Isabella’s wicked mother, her more wicked stepmother, her mother-in-law, her friend Alexander McQueen, and in many friends’ opinions according to Crowe, by Detmar Blow himself.
To this, Blow writes: “Issie gave me a copy of Ted Hughes’ book of poetry, Birthday Letters, which deals with his relationship with his wife Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide. The poems focus in part on how he was blamed for his wife’s suicide by people who knew absolutely nothing of their relationship. The feeling is well known to me….Yes, I lost my patience on many occasions, but all I remember saying to Issie, over and over again, is, ‘I am not going to make it easy for you to die.’”
Of course only Isabella knew where it all went wrong, and she didn’t tell anyone or note in a diary. What is certain is her life was short, but full—very full. And what is evident now—by reading these two books as well as paging through the glossies—is that her passing has left a substantial void in the world of fashion.
Dana Thomas is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, published by The Penguin Press in 2007. Since 1995 she has served as a cultural and fashion correspondent for Newsweek in Paris. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, the Financial Times, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle Décor and was the European editor of Condé Nast Portfolio. She lives in Paris.