Isabella Blow lived as though restraint was a dirty word. The fashion editor, stylist and muse had outlandish creativity and an eye for talent that helped inject life into Britain’s once-stale ’90s fashion scene. She produced iconic editorials for Tatler and Vanity Fair, and was mentored by none less than Vogue’s Anna Wintour. When she worked for London’s Sunday Times Style section, she lodged an expense claim that a lesser personality wouldn’t dare pull off.
“There are so many stories,” laughs Shonagh Marshall, the London-based fashion curator who has co-curated Isabella Blow: A Fashionable Life. The exhibition, at the Powerhouse Museum, brings 172 pieces from Blow’s wardrobe to Australia for the first time. There’s a lobster hat from milliner Philip Treacy as well as eccentric pieces from Hussein Chalayan, Julien Macdonald and Alexander McQueen, (who Blow famously discovered at the Royal College of Art) and hats adorned with giant lobsters and cut-out mouths that are the stuff of Surrealist fantasy
“The first outfit you see is an Alexander McQueen for Givenchy kimono jacket and skirt,” says Marshall. “When we were curating the show we found a receipt for 39,000 French francs that Isabella paid to purchase the ensemble. It’s very expensive couture but we also found an expense claim for the Sunday Times Style [supplement] with a note that read ‘business clothes’. We wanted to show that early because Isabella was so funny.”
Every garment tells a story, and the kimono describes a life defined by creative triumphs, but also by impulsivity. See also the silk Louis Vuitton dresses pocked with cigarette burns, and the Manolo Blahniks tattered from partying. Blow ended her life in 2007 after a protracted fight with manic-depression.
In 2010, the art patron and heiress Daphne Guinness purchased her friend’s wardrobe to prevent it from being divided at auction. She founded the Isabella Blow Foundation to support research into mental health.
“Blow was an extraordinary character,” Marshall reflects. “Almost like someone you’d read about in a book. But on the flipside, she was also deeply innovative. She had so much kindness and generosity for her friends – a lot of her friends were her discoveries. She nurtured their talent. There’s really been no one like her in recent history.”
Isabella Blow: A Fashionable Life runs at the Powerhouse Museum from May 14 to August 28.