Credited with launching the careers of Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy and Hussein Chalayan, discovering Sophie Dahl (crying on a street corner) and Stella Tennant, Isabella Blow’s contribution to fashion was immeasurable. Ahead of the Somerset House Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! exhibition, opening 20 November, we asked Izzy’s niece Harriet Verney for a first hand account of fashion’s first lady.
“Potatoes pancakes, 7am school runs and the odd over-dramatised bible reading before bed.”
-My response when I’m asked: “What was Isabella Blow really like?”. It’s always met with a backwards head jerk and a momentary botoxed brow.
I once saw my aunt, Izzy demonstrate to Loic - our chef - how the English mastered the missionary position. I even once witnessed her wearing jeans; Mcqueen “bumster” (more like round her ankles) but none the less, still jeans.
Izzy had her own tools to mend the dry stonewalling surrounding our garden; she was deliciously competitive and weirdly obsessed by Jersey Milk and milkmaids. She could be deathly silent (when attempting tapestry lessons) or ear bursting-ly noisy (she was head of choir at school and claimed being a Nun was her chosen career.)
Then there were the clothes... a labyrinth of Izzy’s fashion findings in our attic. Izzy once caught me, armed with a polaroid camera, climbing onto the roof in a Mcqueen show piece suit, carelessly ripping the jacket on my ascend. When she saw the rip days later she shrugged “Gosh I must have done that dancing.” Izzy believed in wearing her clothes hard, and wearing them out.
Like a deep-sea diver minus the oxygen tank, Izzy lived and breathed from a different source. The stories of her designer conquests almost outshine the clothes. “She believed in the right to recognition," explains her friend Daphne Guinness. “The clothes are the embodiment of Isabella’s life’s work; the various outfits are like chapters in her memoirs.” Daphne and the Isabella Blow Foundation have embarked on the tracheas task of Immortalising Isabella in an exhibition. “In many ways, Isabella revived me… seeing the collection for the first time was poignant. What moved me most was that they smelled of her," she remembers. Izzy wore Fracas…and once again Isabella has caused a fracas. This time in the form of a four-month showcase of her clothes and hats at Somerset House.
“It’s a celebration of difference,” says Nick Knight, who photographed the catalogue of clothes for the upcoming exhibition. Shooting the catalogue at Izzy’s family home Doddington, Cheshire and accompanied by 24 hour armed security, the supernatural kicked in. “We went into one room, it was beyond the natural light… almost as though we were in a coal mine. There were lots of regimented shelves, nothing on any of them. Apart from on one. A purple, corked glass bottle and an open book. The bottle? I have no idea what it contained; the book was opened on a chapter… the chapter read ‘Ghosts’“, relays Nick.
With Guinness at the helm, Nick Knight behind the camera, Julia and “Baby” [Isabella’s younger sisters], Philip Treacy and a harem of curators and clothes conservationists, Somerset House will be home to Izzy’s wardrobe at Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore running from 20th November 2013 until 2nd March 2014.
The Head Of Isabella Blow by Tim Noble and Sue Webster will cast a shadow on the walls as the cigarette burns and notorious lipstick stains take a supporting role in the couture.
Recently I found a pair of Izzy’s gardening gloves in a draw. Smudged ink writing declared them hers and hers only. Cultivation was her thing, from the designers she nurtured to the “Love Lies Bleeding” still dominating the garden; Isabella’s legacy lives on.