Nick Knight, “Isabella Blow” collection for V #86 Fall 2013.

The Life, Look, and Legacy of Isabella Blow, Art and Fashion Patron

Isabella Blow. Photo Gavin Evans.

Steven Meisel, Isabella Blow, 'Paradise Feathers', 1993.

Isabella Blow in a hat by Irish designer Philip Treacy. Photo Miguel Reveriego.

Isabella Blow, 1997 © Mario Testino.

Isabella Blow, Photo Donald McPherson.

Nick Knight, Jacket: Alexander McQueen, Central Saint Martins MA Fashion Collection 1992. Duchess satin jacket with boned bustle back and points at the front, silk. Underwear: Rigby & Peller. Shoes: Manolo Blahnik. Model: Alexia Wight. photo © Nick Knight.

Nick Knight, “Isabella Blow” collection for V #86 Fall 2013.

Nick Knight, Hat: Philip Treacy, A/W 1999. Mesh sculpted hat, net. Bolero: Alexander McQueen, S/S 2004. Peach feather bolero, feather and silk. Dress: Alexander McQueen, S/S 2003. Black bustier dress, polyamide. Worn to the launch party for ‘Bergdorf Blondes’ by Plum Sykes, Annabel’s, London, 4 May 2004. Model: Kirsi Pyrhonen at Viva London. photo © Nick Knight.

Nick Knight, “Isabella Blow” collection for V #86 Fall 2013.


Somerset House
+ 44 20 7845 4600
Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!
November 20, 2013-March 2, 2014

This autumn, Somerset House, in partnership with Isabella Blow Foundation and Central Saint Martins, presents Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!, a major fashion exhibition celebrating the extraordinary life and wardrobe of the late British patron of fashion and art.

Born into the rarefied world of British aristocracy, Isabella’s thirty-year career began in the early 80s as Anna Wintour’s assistant at US Vogue. On her return to London in 1986 she worked at Tatler followed by British Vogue. In 1997 she became the Fashion Director of Sunday Times Style after which she returned to Tatler as Fashion Director. Driven by a passion for creativity, Isabella is credited for having nurtured and inspired numerous artists and designers. The exhibition will showcase over a hundred pieces from her incredibly rich collection, one of the most important private collections of late 20th Century/early 21st Century British fashion design, now owned by Daphne Guinness. This includes garments from the many designer talents she discovered and launched, such as Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy, Hussein Chalayan and Julien Macdonald among others.

Isabella is also known for discovering models Sophie Dahl and Stella Tennant, and for her collaborations with major photographers such as Steven Meisel, David LaChapelle and Sean Ellis, which pushed the boundaries of convention in her increasingly provocative fashion spreads and establishing herself as a legendary figure within the international fashion and contemporary art worlds.

Curated by Alistair O’Neill with Shonagh Marshall and designed by award-winning architectural firm Carmody Groarke, with installations by celebrated set designer Shona Heath, the exhibition will display thematically the breadth of Isabella’s collection, a life lived through clothes. The exhibition will be divided as follows:

Isabella's Background The first section of the exhibition will explore Isabella’s background, and her British aristocratic ancestral roots. Born Isabella Delves Broughton in 1950s post-war Britain, with a family seat at Doddington Hall in Cheshire, her family history can be traced back to the 14th Century — a factor which played an important part in Isabella’s life. Highlights include family photographs and the sculpture entitled Isabella Blow by Tim Noble and Sue Webster

Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy This section will feature pieces from Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy’s graduate MA collections from Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art respectively, including Isabella’s wedding headdress.  Exploring  the way in which both designers used whatever they could get their hands on to make their garments and hats, this section celebrates the beginnings of their careers and the  talent Isabella saw in them, celebrating her eye for discovering young talent.

The next section exhibits key items from McQueen and Treacy’s AW 1996 collections. McQueen dedicated his AW 1996 collection, entitled Dante, to Isabella and this was his first season to receive international critical acclaim. This same year Isabella styled Philip Treacy’s AW 1996 collection, key items of which will be exhibited.

Countryside A huge hedge installation, inspired by Isabella’s love of the English countryside will display groups of clothing from her collection presented in four themes that conjure the fantastical world Isabella inhabited and drew inspiration from, reflecting her love of birds, flowers and the surreal.  Works in this section show off a number of Isabella’s favourite designers, including clothing by Jeremy Scott, Comme des Garçons, Julien Macdonald, Viktor and Rolf and Undercover alongside accessories by Philip Treacy and Erik Halley.

Isabella's Outfits & Style Shona Heath will create bespoke Isabella Blow mannequins wearing full outfits worn by her, built referencing archival documentary images. These will demonstrate her distinctive, eclectic style and mixing of designer pieces. She was quoted as saying "Fashion is a vampiric thing, it's the hoover on your brain. That's why I wear the hats, to keep everyone away from me”, demonstrating the way in which Isabella wore her clothing as a form of armour. Pieces here include McQueen for Givenchy, Alexander McQueen, Fendi, Philip Treacy, Escada, Teerabul Songvich, Dior, Prada, Jeremy Scott, Benoit Meleard for Jeremy Scott, Viktor and Rolf, John Galliano for Dior, Manolo Blahnik and Marni.

Isabella at Work / Head & Feet Taken from Isabella’s owns words: “Tip: Always accentuate the head and the feet”, this part of the exhibition will look at the importance that hats and shoes played in her life- she was rarely seen without a McQueen outfit, Treacy hat and Manolo Blahnik shoes. Representing Isabella’s work and urban London life installations by Shona Heath will be created to exhibit hats and shoes from her collection. This section also features one of Isabella’s most famous and successful shoots with Steven Meisel for British VogueDecember 1993 entitled ‘Anglo Saxon Attitudes’ featuring Stella Tennant, Honor Fraser, Plum Sykes, Bella Freud and Lady Louise Campbell, the first time any of them had graced the pages of a magazine, showcasing Isabella’s eye for spotting talent.

Legacy The final section in the exhibition displays La Dame Bleue, the S/S 2008 Alexander McQueen collection that Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy collaborated on and dedicated to Isabella after her death. The collection was inspired by Isabella and to end on this note evokes both her legacy and her importance.

Toward the end of her life, Blow had become seriously depressed and was reportedly anguished over her inability to "find a home in a world she influenced". Daphne Guinness, a friend of Blow's stated, "She was upset that Alexander McQueen didn't take her along when he sold his brand to Gucci. Once the deals started happening, she fell by the wayside. Everybody else got contracts, and she got a free dress". According to a 2002 interview with Tamsin Blanchard, it was Blow who brokered the deal in which Gucci purchased McQueen's label.

Other pressures included money problems (Blow was disinherited by her father in 1994) and infertility. In an effort to have a child, Blow and her husband had unsuccessfully tried in vitro fertilization eight times. She later stated, "We were like a pair of exotic fruits that could not breed when placed together."

In 2004, Isabella and Detmar Blow separated. Detmar Blow went on to have an affair with Stephanie Theobald, the society editor of British Harper's Bazaar, while his estranged wife entered into a liaison with a gondolier she met in Venice. During the couple's separation, Blow was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began undergoing electroshock therapy. For a time, the treatments appeared to be helpful. After an 18-month separation,[ Isabella and Detmar Blow were reconciled. Soon after, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Depressed over her waning celebrity status and her cancer diagnosis, Blow began telling friends that she was suicidal. In 2006, Blow attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. Later that year, Blow again attempted suicide by jumping from the Hammersmith Flyover, which resulted in her breaking both ankles.

In 2007, Blow made several more suicide attempts by driving her car into the rear of a truck, attempting to obtain horse tranquilizers, trying to drown herself in a lake and by overdosing while on a beach in India.

On 6 May 2007, during a weekend house party at Hilles, where guests included Treacy and his life partner, Stefan Bartlett, Blow announced that she was going shopping. Instead, she was later discovered collapsed on a bathroom floor by her sister Lavinia and was taken to Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, where Blow told the doctor she had drunk the weed killer Paraquat. She died at the hospital the following day.

Blow's death was initially reported as being caused by ovarian cancer; however, a coroner later ruled the death a suicide. At the inquest, Blow's sister, Lavinia Verney, stated that after she discovered her sister had ingested the poison, Blow had told her, "I'm worried that I haven't taken enough."

After her death, Detmar Blow confirmed that his wife suffered from depression and that she had once declared, "I'm fighting depression and I can't beat it".

Her funeral was held at Gloucester Cathedral on 15 May 2007. Her casket, made of willow, was surmounted by one of her Philip Treacy hats instead of a floral tribute, and her pallbearers included her godson Otis Ferry, a son of the rock star Bryan Ferry. (In 2010, Bryan Ferry dedicated hisOlympia album in memoriam Isabella Blow and David Williams.) Actor Rupert Everett and actress Joan Collins delivered eulogies.[24] A memorial service was held in the Guards Chapel in London on 18 September 2007, where Anna Wintour and Geordie Greig spoke. Wintour's eulogy and part of the memorial service can be seen in DVD disc two of The September Issue.

Daphne Guinness said:“This exhibition is, to me, a bittersweet event. Isabella Blow made our world more vivid, trailing colour with every pace she took. It is a sorrier place for her absence. When I visited her beloved clothes in a storage room in South Kensington, it seemed quite clear the collection would be of immense value to a great many people. I do believe that in choosing to exhibit them we’ve done the right thing – and that it is what she would have wanted. I am doing this in memory of a dear friend, in the hope that her legacy may continue to aid and inspire generations of designers to come.”

Professor Louise Wilson OBE said: “Isabella Blow was a champion of creative talent.  So much that we know today would never have happened without her vision and her support of British fashion and creativity was unique.”

To accompany the exhibition, there will be a catalogue with new, commissioned photography by Nick Knight of the Isabella Blow Collection, edited by Alistair O’Neil with essays by Alistair O’Neil, Professor Caroline Evans, Alexander Fury and Shonagh Marshall, designed by Graphic Thought Facility and published by Rizzoli, priced at £40

Iabella Blow, photo Tim Walker.

Isabella Blow.

Isabella Blow at American Embassy in Paris 1998, Blow was shot by Roxanne Lowit in Paris wearing this silver lobster accessory.

A pink chiffon burka Undercover by Jun Takahashi, a disoplay in the Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! exhibition at Somerset House.

Isabella Blow in Paris, 1998.

David Lachapelle, Burning Down the House, Models Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow.

Nick Knight, Coat: Alexander McQueen, S/S 2003. Black frock coat with feather stand up collar and embroidery detailing, silk and feather. Model: Alexia Wight. photo © Nick Knight.