Sunday, 23 February 2014

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! At Somerset House

The Isabella Blow exhibition at Somerset House is only open for one more week and, if you haven't already done so, I would definitely recommend stopping by. There are certain characters in the colourful history of fashion who are as intriguing as they are influential and Isabella was certainly one of those. Not only did she bring her unique sense of style to countless photo shoots for the likes of British Vogue and Tatler, but she was also a fashion magpie – collecting the bright stars of the future and helping them to shine.

Isabella Blow, 1997 © Mario Testino

Having begun her career as Anna Wintour's assistant at US Vogue, Isabella returned to London where she worked for numerous high profile magazines. She had an eye for emerging talent and bought the entire graduate collection by the then unknown Lee McQueen. Philip Treacy was another of her protegees and she soon became synonymous with his outrageous headwear.

Coming from an aristocratic background filled with colourful characters, she knew what it was like to both have money and to have lost it. She developed a taste for glamour at a young age and it was something she constantly strived for, reportedly cleaning her desk at Vogue each night with Perrier water! I recently read a quote by Oscar Wilde – "Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination" – and I immediately thought of Isabella. She paid for McQueen's graduate collection in installments and in return received one new garment a month.

Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow: Burning Down The House, 1996, London © David LaChapelle Studio, Inc.

This stylish, creative woman was, like so many, the protagonist of a story with as much darkness as light. I recommend reading her biography Blow by Blow which charts her rise to success, the abandonment she felt by those who she helped achieve success, her tumultuous love life, marriage to Detmar Blow and the depression that resulted in several suicide attempts, culminating in her eventual death in 2007.

This remarkable woman led a remarkable life and I was intrigued to see how Somerset House would do justice to such a character. The answer is with some carefully considered curation and the utmost respect for her work and the garments that she collected. I can honestly say that I felt goosebumps as I stood inches away from McQueen's Autumn Winter 1996 collection, able to see every stitch.

McQueen's AW96 collection Dante, which he dedicated to Isabella and received international acclaim

Isabella's extensive collection is now owned by Daphne Guinness and more than a hundred pieces are included in the exhibition by McQueen, Philip Treacy, Hussein Chalayan, Julien MacDonald, Manolo Blahnik and more.

Some of the clothes are in perfect condition but others bear the scars of the wild life that Isabella led. She was a woman who loved to wear couture but who wasn't afraid to run and drink and party and tear hems and break heels. She was no show pony but a living breathing lover of fashion.

These satin shoes show the damage inflicted by such a daring ankle bracelet!

It's an astonishing collection but for me it is the little details that make it such a touching tribute; the mannequins made up with just a smear of red lipstick or the quirky display cases with limbs wearing her shoes. Beautifully reproduced photos by the likes of Steven Meisel and David LaChapelle are included too, from the many shoots that she styled, featuring models such as Sophie Dahl and Stella Tennant – yet more talent that she had discovered.

This is a truly three-dimensional exhibition and includes videos of several runway shows, most notably the final section with La Dame Bleue, the Spring Summer 2008 collection that McQueen and Treacy collaborated on and dedicated to Isabella after her death – a poignant ending.

Fashion Galore! is a fascinating, comprehensive and touching tribute to a woman who had a profound effect on the world of fashion. Says Daphne Guinness, "This exhibition is, to me, a bittersweet event. Isabella Blow made our world more vivid, trailing colour with every pace she took. It is a sorrier place for her absence."

Isabella Blow and Philip Treacy, 2003 for Vanity Fair © Donald McPherson

Exhibition continues at Somerset House until 2 March, 10am–6pm daily, late night until 9pm Thursdays.

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