Born Isabella Delves Broughton in Marylebone, London, she was the eldest child of Major Sir Evelyn Delves Broughton, a military officer, and his second wife, Helen Mary Shore, a barrister.
Sir Evelyn was the only son of Jock Delves Broughton; his sister, Rosamond, married Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat in 1938.
Blow had two sisters, Julia and Lavinia; her brother, John, drowned in the family's swimming pool at the age of 2. This had a profound effect on her. In 1972, when she was 14, her parents separated and her mother left the household, bidding each daughter farewell with a handshake. Her parents divorced two years later. Isabella did not get along with her father, who bequeathed her only £5,000 from his estate, which was worth more than one million pounds. Blow often said her fondest memory was trying on her mother's pink hat, a recollection that she explained led to her career in fashion.
Blow studied for her A-levels at Heathfield School, after which she enrolled at a secretarial college and then took odd jobs. As she told Tamsin Blanchard of The Observer in 2002:
I've done the most peculiar jobs. I was working in a scone shop for years, selling apricot-studded scones. I was a cleaner in London for two years. I wore a handkerchief with knots on the side, and my cousin saw me in the post office and said, What are you doing? I said, What do you think I look like I'm doing? I'm a cleaner!
Blow moved to New York City in 1979 to study Ancient Chinese Art at Columbia University and shared a flat with the actress Catherine Oxenberg. A year later, she left the Art History programme at Columbia, moved to Texas, and worked for Guy Laroche. In 1981, she married her first husband, Nicholas Taylor (whom she divorced in 1983), and was introduced to the fashion director of the US edition of Vogue, Anna Wintour. She was hired initially as Wintour's assistant, but it was not long before she was assisting André Leon Talley, as of 2008 US Vogue's editor-at-large. While working in New York, she befriended Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
In 1986, Blow returned to London and worked for Michael Roberts, then the fashion director of Tatler and The Sunday Times Style magazine. During this period she was romantically linked to editor Tim Willis. In 1989, Blow married her second husband, barrister and art dealer Detmar Hamilton Lorenz Arthur Blow, a grandson (and namesake) of the early 20th-century society architect Detmar Blow, in Gloucester Cathedral. Philip Treacy designed the bride's wedding headdress and a now-famous fashion relationship was forged.
Realizing Treacy's talent, Blow established Treacy in her London flat, where he worked on his collections. She soon began wearing Treacy's hats, making them a signature part of her flamboyant style. In a 2002 interview with Tamsin Blanchard, Blow declared that she wore extravagant hats for a practical reason:
[...] to keep everyone away from me. They say, Oh, can I kiss you? I say, No, thank you very much. That's why I've worn the hat. Goodbye. I don't want to be kissed by all and sundry. I want to be kissed by the people I love.
In 1993, Blow worked with the photographer Steven Meisel producing the Babes in London shoot featuring Plum Sykes, Bella Freud, and Honor Fraser. Blow had a natural sense of style and a good feeling for future fashion directions. She discovered Alexander McQueen and purchased his entire graduate collection for £5,000, paying it off in weekly £100 instalments. Spotting Sophie Dahl, Blow described her as "a blow up doll with brains", and launched the model's career.
Blow supported both the fashion world and the art world. Artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster created a shady artwork which was displayed in the National Portrait Gallery.
Blow was the fashion director of Tatler and consulted for DuPont Lycra, Lacoste, and Swarovski. In 2002, she became the subject of an exhibition entitled When Philip met Isabella, featuring sketches and photographs of her wearing Treacy's hat designs.
In 2004, Blow had a brief acting cameo in the film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.[
In 2005, Blow starred in a project by artist Matthieu Laurette, commissioned and produced by Frieze Projects 2005 and entitled "What Do They Wear at Frieze Art Fair?" It consisted of daily guided tours of Frieze Art Fair led by Blow and fellow international fashion experts Peter Saville, Kira Joliffe, and Bay Garnett.
Shortly before her death, Blow was the creative director and stylist of a series of books for an Arabic beauty magazine Alef; the books were being produced by Kuwaiti fashion entrepreneur Sheikh Majed al-Sabah.
Toward the end of her life, Blow had become seriously depressed and was reportedly anguished over her inability to "find a home in a world she influenced". Daphne Guinness, a friend of Blow's stated, "She was upset that Alexander McQueen didn't take her along when he sold his brand to Gucci. Once the deals started happening, she fell by the wayside. Everybody else got contracts, and she got a free dress". According to a 2002 interview with Tamsin Blanchard, it was Blow who brokered the deal in which Gucci purchased McQueen's label.
Other pressures included money problems (Blow was disinherited by her father in 1994) and infertility. In an effort to have a child, Blow and her husband had unsuccessfully tried in vitro fertilisation eight times. She later stated, "We were like a pair of exotic fruits that could not breed when placed together."
In 2004, Isabella and Detmar Blow separated. Detmar Blow went on to have an affair with Stephanie Theobald, the society editor of British Harper's Bazaar, while his estranged wife entered into a liaison with a gondolier she met in Venice. During the couple's separation, Blow was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began undergoing electroshock therapy. For a time, the treatments appeared to be helpful. During this period she also had an affair with Matthew Mellon; however, after an eighteen-month separation, Isabella and Detmar Blow were reconciled. Soon after, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Depressed over her waning celebrity status and her cancer diagnosis, Blow began telling friends that she was suicidal. In 2006, Blow attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. Later that year, Blow again attempted suicide by jumping from the Hammersmith Flyover, which resulted in her breaking both ankles.
In 2007, Blow made several more suicide attempts by driving her car into the rear of a lorry, attempting to obtain horse tranquilizers, trying to drown herself in a lake and by overdosing while on a beach in India.
On 6 May 2007, during a weekend house party at Hilles, where the guests included Treacy and his partner, Stefan Bartlett, Blow announced that she was going shopping. Instead, she was later discovered collapsed on a bathroom floor by her sister Lavinia and was taken to Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, where Blow told the doctor she had drunk the weedkiller Paraquat. She died at the hospital the following day.
Blow's death was initially reported as being caused by ovarian cancer; however, a coroner later ruled the death a suicide. At the inquest, Blow's sister, Lavinia Verney, stated that after she discovered her sister had ingested the poison, Blow had told her, "I'm worried that I haven't taken enough."
After her death, Detmar Blow confirmed that his wife suffered from depression and that she had once declared, "I'm fighting depression and I can't beat it."
Her funeral was held at Gloucester Cathedral on 15 May 2007. Her casket, made of willow, was surmounted by one of her Philip Treacy hats instead of a floral tribute, and her pallbearers included her godson Otis Ferry, a son of the rock star Bryan Ferry. (In 2010, Bryan Ferry dedicated his Olympia album in memoriam Isabella Blow and David Williams.) Actor Rupert Everett and actress Joan Collins delivered eulogies. Opera singer Charles Eliasch sang. A memorial service was held in the Guards Chapel in London on 18 September 2007, where Anna Wintour and Geordie Greig spoke. Prince Michael and Princess Michael of Kent were in attendance. Wintour's eulogy and part of the memorial service can be seen in DVD disc two of The September Issue.
( …) “Perhaps I'll have a go myself. In some ways, she was a monster. She was dismissive of anyone she considered to be unimportant or – worse – uninteresting, and her "eccentricity" was more of a put-on than she cared to admit. If you ask me, she never forgot that she had a lobster on her head, or a satellite dish. Then again, in full sail, she was a wonderful sight: Rod Hull's emu as styled by Salvador Dali, a human triffid who smoked Benson and Hedges, who never wore underwear and whose touchstones in life were good jewellery and high birth, and not a lot else. She was filthy and funny and ridiculous. She was born in the wrong time.”
Rachel Cooke / “Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow by Detmar Blow”
Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow by Detmar Blow
The late fashion muse Isabella Blow could never be called dull – so why is her husband's portrait of her?
Sunday 3 October 2010 00.02 BST
Isabella Blow, the fashion stylist with a penchant for loony hats and a talent for discovering the Next Big Thing, died on 7 May 2007, at the age of 48, having drunk a quantity of the weedkiller paraquat. Two days later, on 9 May, I was dispatched by this newspaper to Hilles, her Gloucestershire home, to interview her husband Detmar Blow, with whom I have a passing acquaintance (I used to work with Issie at the Sunday Times; Detmar was a regular visitor to the office). This wasn't an easy encounter – he was tearful and slightly manic – but it would have been unfair of me to have done anything other than give him the benefit of the doubt. He had suffered a terrible loss. In spite of my better instincts, then, I attributed his weirder comments to grief, and made light of the fact that, midway through our conversation, he lunged at me with such force I ended up lying prone on a sofa, his soft bulk flapping, carp-like, on top of me. I even failed to contradict him when he insisted that Issie had died of cancer, though like everyone, I knew that, months before, she had thrown herself off a flyover, smashing her ankles, and condemning herself to a life of (oh, horror!) flat shoes.
Three years on, and I rather wonder why I bothered. The more I read of Blow's new biography of his wife – I use the word loosely; this book is to biography what a jar of Chicken Tonight is to cooking – the more convinced I was that his inappropriate behaviour on that day was not remotely unusual. Blow by Blow could not be more inappropriate if it tried. It's not only that it is so blatant an attempt to cash in, though he was obviously in a tremendous rush to get it out: the thing is so pockmarked with inaccuracies, I failed to be surprised even when he described his wife's eyes as bright blue (I believe he was right the first time, when he told us they were green). No, it's his tone – whining and solipsistic – that is most repulsive.
Detmar is the sort of chap who would once have been described as a milksop; when Issie met him in 1988 he was 25, but so close to his mother he used to shop for her sanitary towels. Given that he found even part-time work exhausting – in his book, he is forever off on holiday to recover from his shifts as a solicitor – you can probably guess how he coped with Issie's mental health problems. In Blow by Blow, he flips between sickly self-pity and a weird kind of pride, as if he has landed the best role in a particularly juicy melodrama. There is, for instance, something perturbingly gelid about the satisfaction with which he describes the jacket he wore to visit his wife on her deathbed ("punk Harris tweed with a Rhodesian flag on the back and an Umbro label on the front", since you ask) .
All of which is a terrible shame, because Issie's story is a fabulous one. She was born in 1958, the daughter of Evelyn Delves Broughton, whose father was Jock Delves Broughton of White Mischief fame. Detmar writes of a Delves Broughton curse, which might be overstating it. But still, Jock, having been acquitted of the murder of his wife's lover, poisoned himself in the Britannia Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. Issie was fascinated by this. More horrifying, when she was five, her baby brother John drowned in the family pool. The story Issie liked to tell was that her mother had left the children to go and apply her lipstick – which is straight out of A Handful of Dust – but Detmar disputes the veracity of this: Issie, too, could be self-dramatising.
She and Detmar met at a wedding. "I love your hat," he said. By then she was already a minor legend in fashion circles, famous for flashing her breasts and being a friend of Andy Warhol. Detmar proposed 16 days later. Their engagement photograph, in which Issie is dressed like a medieval page, complete with ceremonial axe, and Detmar is sounding some kind of horn, makes me cry with laughter every time I look at it. What did she see in him? Well, for one thing, there was Hilles, his Arts & Crafts house, which stands in 1,000 prime acres. Her own family having been forced to close up their ancestral home, Doddington Hall, Issie had an obsession with grand houses, a fixation matched only by her preoccupation with money. Her wealthy father had left her only £5,000 and she was convinced that she would end up a bag lady. Perhaps she thought Hilles would help clear her overdraft.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Detmar goes on about how broke they were – grand estates being not at all the same thing as capital – but it's hard to sympathise when you find that they can nevertheless afford to snap up a flat in Eaton Square. Ultimately, Issie's profligacy grew to be another symptom of her manic depression, but it wasn't so in the beginning. Money simply passed through her fingers like sand. When she worked at Tatler, she submitted the most extravagant expenses claim its owner, Condé Nast, had even seen: £50,000 for "a very small ruin, which really was a must". Her supporters claim she was badly treated by her most famous discovery, Alexander McQueen; when he landed the big job at Givenchy, he could find no paid role for his "muse". But really, what could he do? Erratic doesn't even begin to describe her methods. If she felt like it, she worked from her bed.
Her husband, from whom she was estranged towards the end, takes the reader through her various jobs, at Vogue, Tatler and the Sunday Times. He details her IVF treatments (her failure to conceive may, he speculates, have contributed towards her depression). There are some good anecdotes – Issie once cleared a first-class rail carriage by telling everyone how her "combine harvester" teeth prevented her from giving oral sex – though laziness (his own and his co-writer's) means the best stories are cut short before they even begin. What, for instance, actually happened when she joined the Prince of Wales at a house party? The mind boggles, but he can't be bothered to find out. However, the crime for which he really cannot be forgiven is his total failure to pin Issie to the page, to breathe life into her for the benefit of those who never met her. How did he render one so flashy so dull?
Perhaps I'll have a go myself. In some ways, she was a monster. She was dismissive of anyone she considered to be unimportant or – worse – uninteresting, and her "eccentricity" was more of a put-on than she cared to admit. If you ask me, she never forgot that she had a lobster on her head, or a satellite dish. Then again, in full sail, she was a wonderful sight: Rod Hull's emu as styled by Salvador Dali, a human triffid who smoked Benson and Hedges, who never wore underwear and whose touchstones in life were good jewellery and high birth, and not a lot else. She was filthy and funny and ridiculous. She was born in the wrong time. I cannot quite believe that she really existed, much less that I once shared a desk with her. The desk was grey, but the woman who sometimes deigned to visit it seemed to be permanently aflame, a dazzling heap of feathers and fur and leather. We laughed at her, but a tiny part of us was in awe. No one else was going to earn the Murdoch shilling while wearing a lampshade on their head.
The incomparable Isabella Blow always pushed boundaries in the fashion world, often using her personality as her most offensive weapon. Famous for discovering talents such as Philip Treacy, Alexander McQueen, Sophie Dahl and Hussein Chalayan, she also nurtured and inspired many artists and designers across the industry.
A unique stylist, she worked for Vogue and Tatler in the US and the UK, collaborating with major photographers on breathtaking, and often infamous, shoots.
Personal letters written exclusively for this book have been contributed by legendary names in the fashion world, from Valentino and Anna Wintour to Manolo Blahník and Naomi Campbell, and from artists such as Tracey Emin and Noble & Webster whom she inspired. Iconic portraits have been contributed by some of the greatest photographers in fashion, including Mario Testino, Rankin, Donald McPherson and Richard Burbridge.
All combine to paint a vivid image of Isabella that celebrates the ecstasy and tragedy of her astonishing life.
Martina Rink began her career as a personal assistant to Isabella Blow. She is now director of Fashion Spotlight in Berlin.