Isabella Blow copyright Mario Testino.
On at Somerset House until the 2nd March 2014, this exhibition about the fashion stylist and editor, Isabella Blow, took me by surprise. It wasn’t just an archive of spectacular dresses and crazy hats to be wondered through absentmindedly, but a story of Isabella Blow’s fantastical and outrageous life in fashion narrated through the very lived-in, loved and slightly damaged garments of her wardrobe. Sadly, the story doesn’t have a happy ending, but the mood of the exhibition is bittersweet and celebratory, rather than sorrowful.
Interspersed with video clips of interviews with Isabella, her voice echoed through the exhibition, and revealed the more vulnerable side of such a flamboyant personality. Blow never sought to fit in, and was never scared of being considered mad, often wearing odd pairs of shoes. In fact, this was the very sartorial trait that illicited an invitation to dinner from Andy Warhol. Her theatrical outfits became all the more accessible to me as the exhibition revealed that Blow ultimately saw dressing and fashion as a performance and defence mechanism while she was constantly fighting personal demons as well as a way to forging her own identity. The occasional cigarette burn and tear here or there only drew me in further, as well as the hilarious faxes from exasperated magazine accountants following Blow’s extravagant shoots (she is still responsible for one of the most expensive shoots in Vogue’s history), lipstick kissed letters and her pink-ink-only rolodex.
Blow was responsible for pushing designers into the limelight in the 1990s, most notably Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy, Julien MacDonald and Hussein Chalayan, whom she believed were pioneering a British creative renaissance in fashion. She literally led them, by hand, into their fashion careers and stayed fiercely loyal as the Cool Britannia movement soared onto the international fashion scene. Her absolute love, and sheer knowledge, of fashion and its history is clear as you walk around the exhibits and watch the tape reels of the early shows she styled. We see them evolving in quality as she gained more experience and her protiges gained recognition. Contributing to her depression was the feeling that those designers she had nurtured were leaving her behind, but largely driven by her friends Treacy and Daphne Guinness, this exhibition gives her the place in fashion history she so richly deserves.
The final exhibit is a large, wide screen showing of Alexander McQueen’s 2008 Spring Summer Ready to Wear Collection in collaboration with Philip Treacy. The catwalk show featured a huge, illuminated installation of the frame of a bird, and featured a soundtrack that mixed Blow’s voice into disco beats. The show was an homage to her, as well as a triumph in the fashion stakes. McQueen even had the venue perfumed with her signature scent. McQueen had come on so far from the first shows she styled for him, but was forever indebted to Blow. Watching the show made me wish I had been there to be a part of it, and after travelling on a journey through the exhibition, getting to know the real Isabella Blow, it seemed the perfect tribute. A first for everything, I left the exhibition in tears, but sufficiently more fulfilled than I had been before. Blow was a maverick, and eccentric, but also a revolutionary who brought fashion to life. She played with fashion in all its glory and gave it a new narrative in British culture. Some may call fashion frivolous and trivial, but this biographical exhibition showed it to be far deeper.
Images sourced: http://www.somersethouse.org.uk