Blow by Blow : The Story of Isabella Blow by Detmar Blow and Tom Sykes Release date : 2nd September 2010
Fatally flawed fashionista: Isabella Blow's husband reveals how beneath all the glitz, the maverick who discovered Sophie Dahl and Alexander McQueen was crippled by depression
Dressed as Joan of Arc in costume armour with a chain mail headdress, it was a typically dramatic picture of Isabella Blow - and as part of a prestigious feature on British fashion icons in Vanity Fair magazine, it should have been one of the crowning glories of a legendary career.
Yet within a couple of days of this arresting portrait being taken, Isabella was dead after swallowing poison, aged only 48 - her seventh suicide attempt in 14 months. Looking at the picture now, I realise Issie was already preparing herself for her last performance: the shoot was her dramatic farewell to a cruel world.
I was at our flat in Eaton Square, London, when Issie's sister, Lavinia, called to say she had swallowed some poison - and my immediate feeling was one of sickening déjà vu: my own father had died in 1977 after drinking weedkiller, and it had killed him in half an hour as the liquid burned out his insides - a story I had shared with Issie the first time we met. My 12-year-old brother, Amaury, was with him at the time and he said that Dadda never cried out, though his fists were clenched in pain.
In fact, when I got to Issie's bedside in the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital along with Philip Treacy, the milliner who was Issie's best friend, she was pale, but not apparently in pain. Whatever Issie had taken took longer to work - but it killed her just as surely in the end. She passed away in her sleep two nights later.
But why had my wife Isabella Blow - the fashion legend, the toast of glossy magazines from London to New York - wanted so desperately to kill herself? To answer that question, I would have to go back to her extraordinary childhood, her relationship with her parents - and to the great, central trauma of her life.
On 12 September 1964, her two-year-old brother, Johnny, died after falling into a shallow pool in the garden while Issie was supposed to be looking after him. She was only five years old herself at the time. Johnny's death, as well as traumatising Issie for life, utterly destroyed the family.
Her parents, Evelyn and Helen Delves Broughton, never recovered from the loss of their only son and heir. They were unable to seek solace in their three other children - Issie and her two younger sisters, Lavinia and Julia - and eventually divorced ten years later.
By then, Issie was at Heathfield, a girls' boarding school in Berkshire, where up to this point she had been seen as a 'little ray of sunshine' by the teachers.
For most children of divorcing parents at boarding school, it is customary for the parents to come to the school to explain the situation. But this was not the case for Isabella, who learned the news out of the blue when she opened a letter from her mother at lunchtime in the school dining room.
According to her schoolfriend Rosie Pearson, Issie rushed out of the dining room at Heathfield, clutching the letter, in floods of tears. From then on, her behaviour at school became melodramatic and temperamental and she acquired a new nickname, 'Huffy'.
Tragedy ran deep in Issie's family. The stain on the Delves Broughton name went back to her grandfather, Sir Jock Delves Broughton, infamous after being accused of the murder of a fellow aristocrat, the philandering Earl of Errol, who had an affair with Jock's beautiful second wife, Diana, in Kenya in the 1940s.
Jock was acquitted of the murder, immortalised in the book and film White Mischief, but couldn't escape the smears of the press and his contemporaries and committed suicide in Liverpool in 1942 in what some saw as an admission of guilt. Issie believed she'd inherited her depression from Jock, and was later to base one of her own unsuccessful suicide attempts closely around Jock's successful one.
Isabella's childhood was, by any standards, enormously privileged. But it was overshadowed by her father's terror of losing what remained of the family fortune, having watched as a young boy while Jock spent, gambled and unsuccessfully invested away a fortune worth a staggering £70 million in today's money.
Jock inherited two stately homes - Broughton Hall in Cheshire and Doddington Hall in Staffordshire - a collection of paintings and furniture accumulated over six centuries, 15,000 acres of prime farmland in three counties, a London residence and a multitude of stocks and shares.
By the time he killed himself, with a morphine overdose, he left an estate that was only a tenth of the size of the one he'd inherited. Broughton Hall was sold, as was most of the farmland and other assets.
Even as a child, Isabella was perpetually anxious about money. She had undoubtedly picked this up from her father, who, when he wrote to her at boarding school, would put in brackets next to the name of each person mentioned the total number of acres of land they owned.
When Evelyn inherited the estate, he began a lifelong mission to save money - turning the farm into a profitable enterprise and moving his family out of the grand Doddington Hall (which now stands boarded up in a sorry state of disrepair) and into the gardener's cottage in the grounds - something Isabella was to resent all her life.
Though fond of his daughter, Evelyn was penny-pinching and crassly insensitive - his 18th birthday present to her was a Bible and a card telling her she was now 'off the books'.
A year after his divorce, in 1973, Evelyn married again, to Issie's stepmother Rona, who also had three young daughters. When 15-year-old Isabella came home on holiday from school, soon afterwards, she found she'd been evicted-from her bedroom in favour of her stepsisters and moved to a guest room.
She now felt unwelcome at Doddington in the school holidays, and this can be pinpointed as the moment she began to feel as though she belonged nowhere. This demon developed over the years into an obsessive fear that she would end up a homeless bag lady - a belief that haunted her and contributed to her suicide, despite the fact that, at the time of her death, with a flat in Eaton Square, we were manifestly not destitute.
Isabella always got on badly with her own mother - a legacy of possibly feeling blamed by her for her brother's death - but her relationship with her stepmother was also catastrophic.
Another problem with 'The Steps', as she called her young stepsisters, was that they were extremely good-looking. She hated her protruding 'goofy' teeth, blaming her parents for being too mean to spend money rectifying them when she was a teenager. In fact, she had a terrific, slim figure and huge, flashing green-blue eyes - but was convinced she had an 'ugly face'.
Issie later told her friend Hamish Bowles at Vogue, 'If you're beautiful you don't need clothes. If you're ugly like me, you're like a house with no foundations; you need something to build you up.'
Aged 18 and at secretarial college in Oxford, she developed a reputation for wearing evening dresses during the day, dressing as a sexy 1920s-style temptress and performing infamous stripteases. To the staid young men of her circle she was heady and provocative -
particularly to a mature student called Nicholas Taylor, the son of an Oxford lecturer, with whom she had an intense romance, leading to marriage at the age of 22.
The young couple eventually ended up living in New York in the early 1980s - just as Issie's old friend, Lucy Helmore, moved there with her new husband, Bryan Ferry, then one of the hottest rock stars in the world. Bryan arranged an interview for Issie with Anna Wintour, then creative director of American Vogue - and she got the job as one of Anna's two assistants.
Issie immediately created a stir by the bold outfits she turned up to work in, and her eccentric manner. Wintour recalls, 'People would stop by my office just to see what Issie was wearing that day. One morning she might be in full punk regalia, the next dressed like a maharajah, dripping in jewels and sari silks.'
It rapidly became clear that although Issie was not a great administrator, she was highly creative, and hard-working - on things that interested her, at least - and second-to-none at spotting new talent. Wintour says, 'Every day she'd leave Vogue as if her working day was only beginning; the next day she'd come in and relate with breathy excitement about the new artist, the new designer, the new photographer, the fabulous girl we absolutely must work with.'
As Wintour observed, 'the more something shocked her, the more it captivated her imagination'. One such discovery was the painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol's collaborator. Both Warhol and Basquiat ended up doing assignments for Vogue as a result of Issie's introductions. Issie met Warhol at a party where she was wearing one silver and one purple shoe of the same style by Manolo Blahnik. Warhol came up to Issie and said, 'Gee, you had to buy two pairs of shoes to get that look.' Their friendship was to last until his death in 1987.
But by now her marriage was on the rocks. Although Issie was later to be diagnosed with chronic manic-depression, she did not identify herself at this stage in her life as suffering from the condition. It put an intolerable strain on their relationship, and she and Nicholas divorced in 1983 after just two years of marriage.
Issie returned to London, landing up at Tatler in 1986. Soon she was shooting four fashion pages of her own every month which, though a creative success, often put her at odds with 'the suits'. Issie solved this problem by spending vast amounts of her own money on props for shoots, then struggling to claim it back in expenses.
She has the distinction of submitting the highest expenses claim in the history of Condé Nast - for a dilapidated building. Issie wrote on the expenses form, 'Just £50,000 for a very small ruin that really was a must'. It went unpaid.
It was at this point that Issie and I met for the first time, at a mutual friend's wedding in Salisbury Cathedral. She walked into the cathedral as the first hymn struck up - and I was dumbstruck at her appearance; she was wearing an enormous hat festooned with giant ostrich feathers, bright red lipstick and a purple Katharine Hamnett coat dress.
I couldn't take my eyes off her. After the service, I waited for an opportunity to speak to her - and we immediately connected. Despite the brevity of our meeting, I knew I had fallen in love with her, and sat with her after dinner. We were kindred spirits and I ended up telling her about my father's suicide. It was, I admit, an unusual chat-up line.
We got engaged 20 days later after a whirlwind romance - and married the following year in a dramatic ceremony in Gloucester Cathedral, with Issie dressed in a dark violet dress by Nadia Lavalle and a medieval headdress by Philip Treacy, whose work she had recently spotted at Tatler and whom she relentlessly pursued to create the headdress. Issie and I would be together for the next 18 years - and in Philip Treacy she had found not only the creator of her wedding headdress, but her best friend for life and the greatest discovery of her career so far. They quickly developed an intense and creative relationship that he later likened to 'having an affair with no sex'.
We returned from our honeymoon to our respective careers - me as a junior barrister and Issie to Tatler, only to discover she'd been sacked. I never found out exactly why - perhaps the new editor, Emma Soames, didn't like Issie's style, or she'd been spending too much time at her house in Gloucestershire, or she just wasn't easy to work with - but once she'd digested the news, she wiped away her tears and took the lift up to the fifth floor of the same building, where the offices of British Vogue were located.
Here she spoke directly with the legendary editor, Liz Tilberis, with whom she'd had no previous relationship, and told her what had happened. She received a handwritten letter the next day, offering her a job at Vogue styling the portraits of the famous people it featured.
One key shoot she did was legendary photographer Steven Meisel's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes in 1993, informally known as the 'London babes' shoot. At a cost of around £80,000, it remains to this day the most expensive ever done at British Vogue. Issie's brief was to find beautiful aristocratic English girls to inspire Meisel - and the hunt was utterly exhaustive. The girls who made the final cut were Issie's cousin, Honor Fraser; the designer Bella Freud; Issie's new assistant Plum Sykes, and Stella Tennant.
Honor Fraser went on to become an internationally successful model - but Stella Tennant's career was catapulted into orbit as a direct result of meeting Meisel, who immediately went on to use her on the cover of Italian Vogue. Soon after, Karl Lagerfeld announced Stella as the new face of Chanel, with a rumoured £1 million contract.
During the Babes shoot, Issie told Stella, 'If I make you famous, I want a bottle of my favourite perfume.' A bottle of Fracas duly arrived.
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Oh oh see you said some key words, alright, you said I have spice and fire, so stay away before I burn yo ass up.
Isabella Blow's BIG discovery: Finding Sophie Dahl should have been the making of her - but betrayal by protégé Alexander McQueen led to a fatal downfall
By Detmar Blow
One of the main reasons my wife, Isabella Blow, became the fashion icon she did was because of her passion for combing the streets in her endless quest for new designers. And her biggest discovery was undoubtedly the incredible talent of Alexander McQueen.
I clearly recall how she returned home in London's Pimlico one evening in June 1992, enraptured by the graduate show of a 23-year-old student from Central St Martins College of Art and Design. There had been no seats left, so Issie simply sat on the stairs and watched the clothes go past her. The student's name was Lee Alexander McQueen. 'Det, his clothes move like birds,' she told me. 'He can cut material like a god.'
From that very first moment, Issie, who was 33, knew that here was a fashion genius, the likes of which are seen just once in a lifetime.
Much as she had once pursued the milliner Philip Treacy, she swiftly traced McQueen to his family home in Stratford, in London's East End, bombarding the house with calls. He had gone off on holiday after his show, but returned to be told by his mother, 'There's this mad lady keeps calling that's in love with your clothes.'
When Issie met McQueen she asked him how much a jacket would cost and he told her £300. Issie replied, 'That's a lot for a student', but she ended up buying his whole collection, taking a few items a month and paying him in installments.
To get his money, McQueen would come to Vogue House with his clothes in a bin liner. They'd chat at Issie's desk at British Vogue before popping out to her bank to see how much she could withdraw from her account.
We all became close very quickly and, for six months, McQueen used the basement of our London house to work and live in. He also had an open invitation to my family's country home, Hilles, in Gloucestershire, which Issie had made her mission to repair and restore to its former glory, regularly contributing her own money to pay the bills.
Issie was the one who suggested that McQueen use his middle name, Alexander, for his designs, as she thought it sounded nobler - like Alexander the Great. And she was a deeply significant creative influence for him, as he acknowledged when he dedicated his fourth show in 1994 to her.
Until I researched this book, I was unaware of the fact that Issie helped McQueen by paying off some of his County Court judgements for non-payment of his bills. All of which made his treatment of her, once he hit the big time as chief designer at Givenchy in 1996, all the more deplorable.
Brutally, after all the help she had given him, McQueen did not find a role to give Issie at the fashion house.
But, despite the hurt, Issie was determined to stay friends with her former protégé. She would continue to be given pride of place in the front row of his shows and he was always welcome down at Hilles.
But the balance of power had shifted, and McQueen would sometimes be cruel to Issie, even gloating over his financial clout. This snub was made all the more painful for two reasons. One was that Issie's father had recently died - leaving his three daughters £5,000 each, while his £6 million estate went to her stepmother, Rona. Although Issie hadn't expected to inherit riches, she had believed that her father would leave her enough to be comfortable for the rest of her days.
Also, she had left Vogue at the end of 1994 and, with my meagre earnings as a junior barrister and her income as a freelance stylist, we were struggling to make ends meet.
Our money worries were particularly important at the time because we had been trying, unsuccessfully, for several years to have a child and had now embarked on expensive IVF treatment. Issie was desperate to be a mother and, after each round of IVF failed, she would sigh, 'We are like a pair of exotic fruits that cannot breed when placed together'.
It was in the weeks after being dumped by McQueen that Issie discovered 18-year-old Sophie Dahl. Sophie had been out to lunch with her mother, Tessa, which had turned into a row over her mother's insistence that Sophie go to secretarial college when she actually wanted to go to art school. In tears, Sophie rushed out of the restaurant and sat down, by chance, on the steps of our house just as Issie pulled up outside in a cab laden down with shopping bags. Sophie offered to help her and they got chatting. Issie asked why she was crying, so Sophie told her about the fight with her mother over her future.
Despite the fact that Sophie was a size 14 and hardly the classic model shape, Issie saw something else in her and immediately asked her if she wanted to be a model. Issie told me at the time, 'I saw this great big blow-up doll with enormous bosoms...' Issie proceeded to use Sophie for her next shoot for Italian Vogue - and another stellar career was launched.
Then, the next year, it looked as though our luck was finally turning. Issie was offered the job of Fashion Director on the Sunday Times Style magazine and also signed a six-year consultancy contract with Swarovski crystals.
Then we opened a modern art gallery in the East End of London on Isabella's 40th birthday, so that I could leave the law and follow my own dreams. However, the gallery only performed patchily, financially speaking, and it was also becoming apparent that Issie was suffering from severe bouts of manic depression.
She would be incredibly extravagant, but it was hard to avoid the suspicion that she was using exhibition and show to gloss over the deeper problems in her life. She was sacked from the Sunday Times, amid complaints that she was producing shoots full of unwearable clothes, and as her bipolar depression took over, she became more demanding and difficult to live with.
It was around this time that my mother, who actually owned Hilles, decided that my sister, Selina, and her family should have the right to live there - and not Issie and me, in spite of all the incredible work Issie had done to repair the house.
The situation at Hilles stirred up all the deep hurt she felt from her parents, stepmother and McQueen. As Philip Treacy, her close friend, astutely observed, 'It was the beginning of the end for Isabella'. Although Isabella continued to produce incredibly creative shoots - she was by now fashion director at Tatler - her depression really took hold. In 2003, she had her first spell in a mental health clinic.
When she was discharged, her psychiatrist warned me that her condition was very serious. He tried ECT ( electroconvulsive therapy), which produced a dramatic improvement for a while. Gone was the suicidal gloom and profound moroseness, replaced with the old Issie - dynamic, spontaneous and charismatic.
She signed a lucrative contract with MAC cosmetics to collaborate on a range of Isabella Blow red lipsticks, which was a huge success. I hoped that she was turning a corner.
However, she stopped seeing her psychiatrist and embarked on a manic depressive episode, which ended in another stay in a clinic in March 2006. She was discharged three weeks later and, on 20 March, carried out her first suicide attempt by taking an overdose.
Later that year, in a further attempt on her life, Issie smashed her ankles and feet jumping from the elevated section of the A4 at Ealing. I tried to cling to the hope that she would stop trying to kill herself and decide to live, but I didn't seem to be able to do anything to help her.
By spring 2007, it seemed as though it would only be a matter of time until Issie succeeded in killing herself.
On 6 May 2007 Issie made her seventh suicide attempt. When I got to her hospital bedside after she had swallowed poison, I dared hope she might survive, even though a nurse told me she was dying. Issie looked at me with her bluegreen eyes and said sadly, 'Darling, do you remember that when we first met, I was a little ray of sunshine?' before falling asleep. I knew then that she was leaving me.
I knew, too, that if I stayed longer I would cry, which would only compound her misery and guilt at what she had done. So I kissed her, whispering, 'Goodbye Issie, I love you' - and left the room. She died in the early hours of the following day.
Afterwards, I discovered that the day before she took the poison she had spent the day shooting her last arresting portrait, British icons, for Vanity Fair, writing letters and making sure her will was in order before setting out to buy the poison that killed her from a farm shop in Gloucestershire. There were meticulous bequests for godchildren, her two sisters, Philip, myself and other close friends.
But there was no mention of McQueen.
__________________ You're perfect, yes, it's true. But without me, you're only you.
I will confess IB is one person I hadn't heard of until I joined here. Discovering just how influential she was, I wondered that she wasn't more widely known.
I'm also highly intrigued by her style. There are others who are eccentric and artsy, and very unique in how they wear clothes--Daphne Guinness, Anna Dello Russo--but her style seems even more brazen than theirs. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it seems harsh, ugly beautiful. More bizarre.
Anyway, I loved reading the articles about her. It's so sad that she died, and the way that she died, but it's wonderful that she is remembered so positively for her off-beat and forward way of thinking and living.
I will admit I bumped up this topic up because I hope there are more pictures of her people can scan or pot that showcase her style. I can't seem to find anything on tumblr, google, or the web and I want to see more!
I was hoping that someone might be able to help me locate a particular picture of Isabella. I have read that she once wore a pink burqa to a Paris fashion show yet I've never seen any pictures of it and I'd be curious to see it (especially in light of Lady Gaga wearing one recently). Thanks!
__________________ http://miss-rumphius.tumblr.com/ "It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable." Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery