Fashion-world star back in spotlight
Two authors focus on Isabella Blow, who committed suicide in '07.
LONDON - Valentino admired her style, Naomi Campbell called her a huge inspiration, and Boy George said she was what fashion was all about.
Isabella Blow, the eccentric British fashion editor and stylist best remembered for "discovering" and promoting Alexander McQueen, was one of the most influential personalities in the fashion world before she committed suicide in 2007.
Now two competing biographies - one being made into a movie - are telling her story, revealing a little-known struggle with depression and other emotional problems behind a glamorous facade of dramatic hats and decadent parties. Blow killed herself by drinking weed killer after repeated suicide attempts. She was 48.
In some ways, Blow's story resembled a tragic, real-life version of The Devil Wears Prada, the best-selling book and movie based around a fictional fashion magazine editor clearly inspired by the legendary American Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
Like that novel, Blow's biographies offer behind-the-scenes glimpses into the exclusive world of couture shows and designer soirees. And like it, they reveal the darker, cutthroat side of the high-fashion industry.
Blow was a true fashionista, and she delighted in shocking people with bizarre headgear and daring clothes. She once wore a fishy-smelling, crystal-studded lobster on her head to a fashion show, and for her wedding chose a dark purple medieval robe paired with a gold mesh, helmetlike headdress. One of her favorite outfits was a McQueen-designed "bull dress" made of tulle and hide, with a visible hole where the dagger went in and killed the animal. (And this was all pre-Lady Gaga, mind you.)
The mundane and conventional were banned from her life: Wintour, whom she worked for briefly as an assistant, said at her memorial service that Blow not only wore fabulous outfits to work, but cleaned her desk with Perrier water and Chanel perfume.
Blow won friends and allies with her quirky charm, but what really helped her career was her blue-blood pedigree. Born to an aristocrat's family, Blow had the most powerful connections to the rich and famous: Manolo Blahnik and Andy Warhol were her friends, and Tim Burton and Princess Margaret visited her house for parties.
"I add something because I'm establishment," she once said. "I can ring up Elton John and say, 'Come down in 10 minutes,' and he'll be there."
If that was an exaggeration, it wasn't far off the mark. She would not have gotten a job with Wintour had she not been introduced, and her circle of fashion friends became instrumental in her later jobs at Tatler, the Sunday Times, and British Vogue.
Blow used her network to promote new talent, including McQueen, milliner Philip Treacy, and Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig of Marchesa, all of whom were young and unknown when they caught her eye.
Chapman wore to a party the first-ever dress made with the Marchesa label; it was a red sari-inspired number. Blow asked her if she could borrow it to take with her to Paris Fashion Week, recalled Chapman.
"She was very instrumental in the start of our business. She's the one who told us to focus on evening wear," Chapman said. "She said to us, 'You've got to believe in what you do well and stick to it.' "
Treacy went on to work for Chanel, and McQueen rose to become one of Britain's most recognized designers - until he, too, lost his battle with depression and took his own life last year.
In his biography, Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow, Blow's husband of 18 years, Detmar, wrote about how fancy clothes became armor and a distraction for a woman fighting with inner demons. Aside from him and a few close friends, no one knew how badly Blow was suffering from depression - which ran in her family - and frustrations about infertility. Cut off from her father's will, she was also obsessed with the fear that she would run out of money.
The clothes "were very expressive but sometimes they were more about veiling her identity than revealing it," he wrote.
Lauren Goldstein Crowe, the author of a competing biography, Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion, also recently published, said Blow could have achieved more had she been given a more modern upbringing. Blow's aristocratic family was conservative enough to consider university too "common" for girls, and she was among the first women in her family to take up real work.
Goldstein Crowe said the movie based on Blow's life, though sad, would be enlivened by her wit and sparkling personality.
"It would be melancholy, it would be bittersweet," she said. "The work in fashion, to me, was the least interesting. She just had this great persona that jumped from the page."
Her legacy is worth celebrating now because Blow's message was timeless, said Chapman. "She was an incredible visionary, not a conformist, and she saw potential in people. She was so nurturing, so enthusiastic in fashion. She was a believer in fashion and she wasn't afraid of it."