Isabella Delves Broughton Blow was born on the 19th of November 1958 and died May 7th 2007. What transpired in those 48 years is a tale of creativity, betrayal and tragedy. A trendsetting prophet who loved fashion more than it loved her, she took her life after swallowing a lethal dose of paraquat, thus banishing the painful demons that haunted her during the course of her short life. She was an original eccentric, her eye for fashion and for the designers who created them became cultural events. Her idiosyncratic sartorial choices and how she wore them became works of art. A woman whose talents could not be quantified. She joined the Pantheon of other ambulatory art pieces that include Daphne Guinness, Anna Piaggi and Daniel Lismore.
Seeing that iconic picture of Isabella and Alexander McQueen running away from the flaming tower reminded me of the two subjects of the “Tower” Tarot having made landfall and now, like the subjects of the tarot, are trying to runaway from their specific demons. It was like they both drove each other into madness with their symbiotic relationship. And both shared the illness of suicide; McQueen eventually took his own life a few years after she exited hers.
Isabella was just as much a product of her times as she was a product of her past: And it’s important that we study the Whole picture in order to understand this most tragic Muse. The first time I saw Isabella Blow was in a documentary about royal portrait painters. In it, they were contrasting traditional portraitist with a contemporary fashion shoot. There was one particular scene depicting the progress of a shoot of Fredrick Windsor, whose mother is non other than Princess Michael of Kent. A woman who is a very accomplished historical author, whose books I love to read. But in this scenario was living up to her nick name, “Princess Pushy”. It was no surprise then that she was trying to micromanage every detail in the annoyingly condescending way that only royals know how to do.
While everyone else in the crew was playing “duck and cover” there was one lone voice who dared to stand up to HRH with the same socio-economic lilt. “But Ma’am doesn’t understand…” was her Third Person refrain to every suggestion put forth by the Princess. It was obvious that this girl was “to the manor born”, only their appearances couldn’t be more different; She was dressed in an outrageous hat and and an outfit to match. Her name was Isabella Blow. I was hooked. From that moment on I made it a point to follow her career and I was devastated when a few years later she took her own life.
Isabella was the eldest daughter of a family who could trace their lineage back to a Page who fought alongside Edward the Black Prince. That’s a long time ago! Sadly, mental health was a recurring issue with her family since her grandfather Sir Henry John “Jock” Delves Broughton (try saying that name three times quickly) who was one of the subjects in the “Happy Valley Murders” a story which was to eventually become a book and then a feature film in the 1987 film: “White Mischief”. Worth watching if you ask me. Quick film synopsis: A high society love triangle ends tragically in a murder-suicide. Sorry, spoiler.
Being that she was eldest daughter and not son, society saw her as useless since she could not inherit property. And if she couldn’t inherit property, then how could she possibly manage the family fortune? She did have a younger brother whose drowning she witnessed when she was just four years old. It was the beginning of the end for her family since she, and her other two sisters were quickly dispatched to different boarding schools. Finally when Izzie(Isabella) was fourteen, her mother walked out of the marriage and out of their lives. Her dad subsequently re-married and (no-surprise) Izzie did not get along with her new step-mama, causing life-long friction between her and her father. So much so that in the end, he cut her out of his will.
But Izzie marched on, after completing her studies at Oxford, she then moved on to New York to study Art History at NYU. After that her story gets a little hazy and no amount of research brought me clarification, just obfuscation. From what I was able to glean was that while in NYC, she fell into the orbit of the Warhol Factory Crowd. Then she apparently married a Brit who moved to Texas in order to make it in the oil business. During this time she allegedly worked as a rep at the Dallas Apparel Mart for the French designer Guy Laroche. This one I find a little hard to wrap my head around. Being that I live in Texas and am all too familiar with its suffocating provinciality, I can’t imagine Isabella working here. But I digress. After her stint in the Lone Star State, she bolted sans husband, to either New York to work at Vogue Magazine as an assistant to Anna Wintour. OR back to England to be a Nanny for Bryan Ferry’s son, Otis. Either way, can you blame her?
Another twist to this story was that Bryan, being friends with Wintour, secured the Vogue gig for Izzie once her nanny duties were completed. This particular story has a bit more credibility since it was recounted by her husband Detmar to a reporter for The Daily Mail newspaper. Nonetheless her friendship with Ferry lasted her entire lifetime and he was to play a pivotal role in her legacy.
Bryan Ferry remembers his longtime friendship with Isabella at SHOWstudio
So from there, she continued her association with Vogue’s parent company Condé Nast, by moving on to work at Tatler Magazine in London. That was where she evolved into the hat wearing eccentric we all loved. Much like her friend Daphne Guinness, she transformed herself into a walking work of art, using fashion as her medium. Taking advantage of her influential position at a major cultural platform, she went on to discover the talents of designers, models such as Philip Treacy, Sophie Dahl, Stella Tennant, Hussein Chalayan, Miucca Prada, Viktor & Rolf and most auspiciously, Alexander McQueen. A designer with whom she would embark on a creative, symbiotic relationship that ended with the ultimate betrayal.
And as if all of this activity wasn’t enough, she also found the time to make a cameo appearance in Wes Anderson’s film: “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”
Like most larger than life figures, the more Isabella expanded her persona, the harder it was to fit in with the norms & conventions of the fashion industry. Because no matter how much lip service is paid to creativity, in the end, fashion is a business. So Isabella found herself floundering from one position to the next, brokering deals and staging over the top fashion shoots. A consultancy here, a styling gig there. In the end she would wind up kicked to the curb by an industry that she loved, but that did not love her back.
Perhaps the most telling of these scenarios was her association with Alexander McQueen. After discovering him while he was still a student at Central Saint Martins in London. She picked him from the litter and nurtured his career, eventually brokering a lucrative deal between McQueen and Tom Ford of Gucci, who was looking to expand its licensing division. Obviously she assumed that she would secure a high profile position in this new endeavor. But when it came time to sign the contract, her name was not even mentioned and McQueen did not lift a finger to correct this. This was to have a devastating effect on her, spiraling into a nadir of depression and suicide attempts. As a friend observed: “Everyone got contracts, Izzie wound up with a frock”. Sadly this is not such an unusual modus operandi in an industry that ironically idolizes women while at the same time will brutally purge those who are considered irrelevant.
Somewhere along the line Isabella married a fellow blue blood by the name of Detmar Blow, who, like Isabella was asset rich but cash poor and who’s grandfather, in the irony of ironies also died by suicide as a result of drinking paraquat (Izzie’s poison of choice). So Isabella Delves became Isabella Blow and their wedding at Gloucester Cathedral featured all the trappings of a medieval fantasy wedding complete with pageboys and Isabella wearing a medieval style helmet designed by Philip Treacy. Together she and Detmar set about to transform “Hilles”, their little “Arts & Crafts cottage” into an eccentric’s Salon where they entertained high profile creative types as well as Isabella’s protégées. But sadly, happiness would elude Isabella on the domestic front as well when it was discovered that she could not bear children.
To add to her aggravation, Mother in Law from Hell appeared on the scene, demanded that Izzie and Detmar relinquish the house to her whenever she felt the need to stay there. The excuse being that since the couple was childless, it needed to be made available to one of Detmar’s siblings who wasn’t (and there were a few, despite Detmar being the eldest son). This must’ve triggered ugly memories of being displaced by her father’s new step-family, because even though Detmar wanted to fight it out, Izzie did not and the couple temporarily separated.
Again, society rears up its ugly head to obsolesce those women who unable to serve as brood mares to the patriarchy.
So with her marriage and career on shaky ground, Isabella sunk deeper into her funk. Electric shock therapy and hospitalization didn’t help. Her deteriorating condition was further exposed by a highly sensational and unsuccessful suicide attempt in 2006. While stuck in traffic on a busy overpass in London, she climbed out of her taxi and thew herself to what she hoped would be her death. But no death, just two very badly broken ankles. But broken ankles or not, she flew to Dubai Fashion Week on an imaginary expense account, passing herself as the “Elsa Klensch of Al-Jazeera” then again to Fashion Week in Bombay where she passed herself off as a Vogue representative who had flown into town in order to select the new editor of Vogue India.
Eventually her shenanigans caught up with her and she wound up back in London broke and her reputation in tatters. But Izzie rallied, as most manic depressives are wont to do. Soon she was on her way to new adventures and projects. About a week before her passing, she posed for photographer Tim Walker, wearing a chain mail hood and mime makeup. It’s a sad picture to see; even though Isabella was not a conventional beauty, in her earlier pictures, her eyes sparkled with mischief and creativity. Here she looked like she had her life’s blood drained from her and looked much older than her 48 years on this earth. It’s a disturbing portrait, considering how her previous collaborations with Walker produced groundbreaking, iconic images.
A few days before May 7, 2007, while staying at Hilles, she would take a lethal dose of Paraquat. This was her seventh suicide attempt in a little over a year and the seventh time was the deadly charm. She announced her deed to her family long after it was too late to save her from poisoning. She was hospitalized and died in her sleep a few days later. In the time that transpired between her swallowing the poison and expiring, she was busy planning her funeral. She wanted it to be as whimsical as her fashion statements. And what an event it was! The services took place in Gloucester Cathedral, where she was previously christened then married, now served as the venue for her Last Hurrah. She was brought in on a horse drawn carriage, her coffin bedecked by flowers and topped off by one of Philip Treacy’s creations. The boys that served as pages at her wedding, where now her pallbearers. Otis Ferry (Bryan’s son and her former charge) was amount them. If Isabella Blow was over the top in life, she definitely raised the bar in death.
Then bad news rained upon more bad news: It was announced that her family was going to have to auction off Isabella’s couture collection in order pay off her Death Tax. That’s similar to the Inheritance Tax here in the States. It’s ironic that someone who spent most of her life worrying about money was now plagued by financial obligations in death. Luckily her friends stepped in and prevented this from happening. Namely Daphne Guinness and Bryan Ferry. The Isabella Blow Foundation was created to preserve her comprehensive collection while serving as a tax shelter for her already burdened family.
It was Daphne’s brainchild to create an exhibition called Fashion Galore! honoring the memory of Isabella while showcasing her extensive wardrobe collection. Bryan Ferry contributed the song “When She Walks In the Room” which had been her favorite song of his (and my personal favorite too) to promote the event. A promotional video was created by Ruth Hogben using Bryan’s song and Isabella’s wardrobe from the exhibition. The video was shot at Doddington, her ancestral home. It’s a moving tribute and the words to the song resonate with the telling ironies of her life. “Fashion Galore!” was a tremendous success at its opening at London’s Courtauld Gallery in 2013. Then the collection went on to make the rounds of the fashion capitals of the world to tremendous fanfare. Thanks to the proceeds from the Fashion Galore exhibit, the Isabella Blow Foundation emerged; A foundation dedicated to providing educational scholarships and mental health services in the form of art therapy to those suffering from mental illness.
Daphne Guinness Interviewed by SHOWstudio discussing the “Fashion Galore” Exhibition and creation of the Isabella Blow Foundation.
Isabella managed to redeem herself in death as she was never able to in life. Perhaps in the end those “frocks” that she received as consolation prizes after getting screwed out of a deal are the keys to her immortality. Her couture collection at the Isabella Blow Foundation is now a permanent record for the study of the cultural trends of the turn of the 20/21st centuries. Her energy is palpable in the design of these confections, since she herself served as an inspiration for each and every one of them. These dresses and hats, each one a work of art in their own right, like the muse who inspired them, are forever a part of a greater legacy.
I’d like to conclude this post with the lyrics from “When She Walks In The Room” written by Bryan Ferry. Even though he composed this a prior to their acquaintance, the lyrics resonate with the ironies of her brief life.
“When She Walks In The Room”
Lyrics by Bryan Ferry, courtesy of Universal Music Publishing
“So you talk to the walls
’cause they’ve seen it all
And heard it all before
And your fair weather friends
Fail to speak
They’re so afraid still waters run deep
And they’re don’t understand
That you can’t see the woods for the trees
Christmas trees you were sure
Weren’t the sort
To build up your hopes
Then sell you short
Yeah to build you up
And sell you short
All your life you were taught to believe
Then a moment of truth – you’re deceived
All the wine in your life’s all dried up
Is now the time to give up?
Like the soft paper cup that you squeeze
So you take this and that and then some more
And you make your way through the door
You make up your way through the door”
©2020 Costumes by Antonia
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