Fashion as Armour
The Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! exhibition at London Somerset House may prove an emotional experience to many visitors. Isabella Blow had many fashionable friends who adored her humour and generosity; she was also a muse to as many. Her shamelessly-extravagant style inspired a generation – both in and out of her circle.
I must admit I do not have much of a personal affinity with Isabella Blow. A nineties child, I was taking baby steps into the decade which spanned the heyday of her career. Famously, Isabella Blow discovered Philip Treacy in 1990 and Alexander McQueen two years later. She nurtured their careers whilst working for Tatler, Vogue and The Sunday Times. I had not left school in 2007 when she sadly ended her life. The exhibition Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! curated by Alistair O’Neill and Shonagh Marshall aims to illustrate Isabella Blow’s biography through clothes. It proved a great opportunity to discover the woman behind the myth.
The exhibition layout is a little cumbersome, weaning you in through a series of small, dark rooms. The first one gives some background information on Blow, born into aristocracy as Isabella Delves Broughton. The privileges of her lineage did not however, extend to her as her grandfather squandered the family fortune in the interwar years. Forced into work, she was proud to claim her first job as a cleaner. The exhibition document her youth through family photographs and newspaper clippings.
Well before she worked for the newspaper, The Sunday Times scrutinised her ‘underwear as outerwear’ style evaluating its potential to become a widespread trend. Her eccentric fashion sense seems to have been innate, regardless of wealth or position.
Next to these family photos, are images of Papua New Guinean Pygmies taken by Lady Vera Delves Broughton, Isabella’s grandmother, a keen traveller. Initially it struck odd to mix these images with those of Blow’s personal upbringing. Isabella was fond of these photos, and throughout the exhibition you find an assortment of anecdotes that have inspired her fashion and styling choices.
Dotted around the exhibition, several videos play simultaneously. An irritable affair on the senses you would think, which actually enhances the atmosphere. The discordant murmurs, comparable to the light chatter at a party add to that of the crowds this exhibition pulls in – not a one off either, I’ve visited twice! Exit the first room and a sculptural portrait of Isabella Blow (2002) by Noble and Webster, an amalgamation of stuffed woodcocks, lipstick and a Manolo Blahnik heel on a moss-covered stake projects Blow’s silhouette onto the wall.
The second room highlights Isabella Blow’s skill at truffling for talent, as endearingly described by Hamish Bowles. Although her job title was fashion journalist, Isabella Blow was instrumental in kick-starting the careers of Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy, Hussein Chalayan and Julien MacDonald amongst others. Her legacy lies in their success. The perimeter of the room is lined with tiny screens which show the designers graduate runway shows. Select pieces from those degree collections are also on display, their proximity both a privilege and a humbling experience. The odd wrinkled hem and frayed edge reminds us that these established fashion mavericks have once been students too. Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen’s MA collections demonstrate excellent craftsmanship as well as intellectual footing, evident in the avant-garde silhouettes and rich textures.
It seems Isabella responded to clothes unconventional in their construction, as illustrated by a Hussein Chalayan dress, lying flat in a glass cabinet. This particular dress has magnets concealed in the hems to shift its natural drape. It was under Blow’s advice that the young designer carried in black bin bags, his graduate collection, The Tangent Flows, to show upmarket boutique Browns. The collection later featured in its windows. It had previously been buried in soil and iron filings to engrain the garments with rusted patina. The natural pattern developed out of the process may not be flamboyant but is raw, earthen, and nonetheless, remarkable. These were the kind of qualities Isabella loved, and they subsequently dictated a ‘New British order in Fashion.’
The room brightens as the exhibition fast forward to 1996, a crucial year to McQueen and Treacy which sees the critical successes of their autumn collections. A room is dedicated to select pieces from Alexander McQueen’s Dante collection, a tribute to Blow that cemented his status as a critically and commercially acclaimed designer. The garments on display evoke his graduate work but are more refined technically and in their execution. Distressed lace edges; an elaborately black colour palette; a mix of relaxed silhouettes with defined sculptural qualities, all infused with baroque and militarian features show McQueen was very much an artist as a fashion designer.
After watching on a humble television screen, the entirety of the mega-length Dante show I proceeded upstairs only to be blinded by fluorescent neon strip lights reflected on concertina mirrored walls. This dazzling set-up illuminates Philip Treacy’s autumn 1996 collection – a show Blow styled. The hats on display here are luxurious sculptural masterpieces. Colourful silks concertinaed into extravagant proportions for some hats which at times, encased the entire head, whilst they were fashioned into horns for others. Most hats are adorned with exquisite feathers from a variety of birds and some with Swarovski-studded veils.
We get to find out a little more about Isabella again as the next room documents her various little idiosyncrasies. Little mementos, such as her business card, fax letters, and, most endearingly, a doodled self-portrait on a napkin, are displayed within Blahnik-heeled mannequin cabinets. We also find out that she liked to write with pink ink, wear odd shoes and seal everything with a kiss (tinted with Chanel’s Rouge Coromandel.) These little anecdotes from her day-to-day remind us that the legend was in fact a working human being too.
Now, on to her fabulous wardrobe! Three impromptu sets divided into themes of the Sea, the Land and the Sky contextualised her style influences. The sea scene showcases a ship hat by Treacy and a crystal-encrusted lobster hat by Erik Halley. Opposite another major influence: The Middle Ages. A curious passage leads up some steps into The Circular Saloon where are displayed some of Blow’s most ornate coats and dresses – all co-ordinated with extravagant Treacy headwear, of course. There you realise that, just like the medieval knights did with chain mail, Isabella used fashion as armour against everyday life hurt.
Next door, a room acknowledges another of Mrs Blow’s talents: discovering models. She found Stella Tennant, Sophie Dahl and Bella Freud amongst many others. With photographs the height of the walls, I was immersed into an interactive version of British Vogue’s ‘Anglo Saxon Attitude’ story shot by Steven Meisel in December 1993.
A corridor illuminated by Noble and Webster’s Excessive Sensual Indulgence (1996), light sculpture points to the exit. Lining the tunnel is the last of Isabella’s clothing collection. A plastic wind coat by Yoshiki Hishinuma (circa. 1999) of multi-coloured patches and gargantuan proportions caused me to linger. By then, I thought I had pinned down Isabella’s style as glamorously ornamental, but as the remainder of her wardrobe demonstrates, she was unpredictable: avant-garde clown suits and matador jackets.
I particularly enjoyed Isabella carefree inclusion of kitsch elements in her outfits. The most elegant couture, mostly Alexander McQueen pieces with splashes of McQueen for Givenchy, Fendi, Comme des Garcons, Viktor & Rolf and Galliano for Dior and many more brazenly juxtaposed to a pair of bright acetate sunglasses or spiky paper hat, an approach which at the time, shocked fashion’s stiff upper lips. One of the many reasons Blow was so adored.
The exhibition concludes with a presentation of Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy’s collaborative spring 2008 collection: La Dame Bleue, which paid tribute to Isabella’s untimely death in 2007. Birds were a profound symbol shared by both McQueen and Blow, and served as the motif for the collection. A circle of steel-hued outfits boast McQueen’s renowned tailoring skills. These frame a trailing gown composed with multitudes of tiny feathers that rightly stood as the centrepiece. Partnered with a Treacy’s fanning feather headpiece, the collection was summarised in one outfit. Their sharp silhouettes remind us that Blow was a dominant lady in fashion and a force of nature.
The display is supported by a video playing the runway show in full. The massive screen expands Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton’s ‘bird of light’ backdrop to illuminate the room. The vivid garments and the disco soundtrack infused with Blow’s voice, courtesy of Jon Gosling, stir bittersweet emotions. This was not helped when acknowledging McQueen’s subsequent passing in 2010.
Of course, a show meant to commemorate Blow was bound to be an uplifting reflection of the lady’s jubilant character. And this certainly was a celebration of life, not a dreary grieving. I didn’t really feel I knew Isabella Blow before visiting the exhibition, by the end I couldn’t help but feel a little bereft. The exhibition is a moving sartorial biography of a colourful life once lived, as stated in the title, it promises fashion galore.
Read on Modeconnect’s review of Isabella Blow by Martina Rink.
Visit Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! exhibition at London Somerset House, Embankment Galleries until March, 2, 2014.
Daily 10.00-18.00 (last admission 17.00)
Until 21.00 Thursdays (last admission 20.00)
Special time on Tuesday 18 February, Friday 21 February and Saturday 22 February 10.00-19.00
£12.50, £10 concessions, £6.25 on Mondays