Somerset House is an atmospheric setting for an exhibition reviewing the 30 year career of Isabella Blow. I'm not generally interested in high fashion, I regard it much like Formula One racing — a rarefied field inhabited with people who might as well be from another planet.
I do find Isabella Blow intriguing though and I assumed that, because she was of noble lineage, she would also be filthy rich because how else could you maintain the eccentric lifestyle she appeared to enjoy without loads of cash. How wrong was I? Her Wikipedia page reveals that she had a series of odd jobs including working as a cleaner for two years in London and at a shop selling scones which made me warm to her having myself done similar work in the past.
This all changed when she moved to New York to study Ancient Chinese Art. Before long she was introduced to the to the fashion director of the US edition of Vogue, Anna Wintour and employed as her assistant which set her on her path to becoming a stylist and fashion editor in her own right.
Heaven knows what the daily life of a fashion assistant might be like. It makes me think of the film The Devil Wears Prada starring Meryl Streep set in the fashion world and said to be loosely based on a certain, very famous fashion magazine. Anyway Isabella obviously thrived in this culture eventually returning to London and establishing herself as a fashion director of Sunday Times Style and Tatler magazine.
This exhibition consists of more than 100 items from her own collection of clothes, hats and shoes. They include garments from fashion designers she launched like Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy and Julien Macdonald. Isabella had a natural sense of style and an eye for future fashion trends. She discovered Alexander McQueen and bought his entire graduate collection for ₤5,000 paying it off in weekly ₤100 instalments receiving one garment a month in return. This must have been a risky investment but one which clearly paid dividends for both parties. Isabella also discovered models Sophie Dahl and Stella Tennant and collaborated with various photographers and became a legendary figure and patron on the international fashion scene.
The easiest way for me to appreciate these garments was to look at them as though they were sculptures made from fabric instead of items for wear and then they made sense. I loved Philip Treacy's hats most of all. Some of them resemble helmets made out of wonderful materials which almost completely obscure the face. Others are made from feathers and look as though they might take flight at any moment. One of them had a ship in full sail on top of it. In addition to the garments on display there are family photo albums from when she was a child. One of the films playing on continuous loop has her describing where her desire for beauty came from. She said something like: "We lived in a horrid pink house with a 1970s car port outside it and in the distance was this beautiful house we owned and couldn't afford to live in." There is also an excerpt from an interview with her in around 1996/7 where she exhibits a lively and vivacious side to her that was very attractive.
Towards the end of her life she suffered from severe depression attempting suicide more than once. Her influence in the fashion world was waning, she had had the sadness of infertility to contend with and her parents had divorced when she was young which must have left its mark on her and in addition she also had money worries. To top it all she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and she committed suicide in May 2007.
This was such a sad end to an extraordinary life which was clearly not an easy one. Isabella Blow was one of life's individuals and it's hard to imagine any other fashion director commanding the level of public attention or having the same influence on the international scene as she did.
20 November 2013 - 2 March 2014