With its relentless trend cycles and social whirls, the fashion industry is not the most befitting place for mournful reflection. However, in these last months it has had to face up to the loss of two key figures at a desperately young age, a time in which it must also carefully consider the precious source of its creativity.
Steven Robinson, the right-hand man to John Galliano for over twenty years, died in his Paris apartment at just 38 in early April. A modest number of newspaper obituaries were testament to a figure little known outside the industry. Yet Robinson’s talent and loyalty had been crucial in resurrecting the House of Dior. It was in 1994 that both he and Galliano were found in a state of bohemian impoverishment by Anna Wintour and André Leon Talley of American Vogue. After one legendary comeback show, staged on a shoestring at a Saint Sulpice mansion, the two acquired tenure at the House of Dior and were catapulted into fashion history.
In one of the most dramatic career ascents in twentieth century fashion, Robinson became the fellow-custodian of Galliano’s creative inner world. The few existing written accounts tell of a dedicated pragmatist who harmonised with Galliano’s operatic intensity, a man whose sole objective never strayed from the challenge of executing a shared vision to the most exceptional of standards. Galliano has publicly lamented the loss of the ‘rock’ that he found in Robinson and questions have abounded concerning the future dynamic of the House.
Robinson’s work ethic and early morning starts had become the stuff of industry legend. Through disciplined research into the historical legacy of Dior, Robinson helped Galliano to accomplish the most exacting task to face any designer: to maintain the tenets of a highly nuanced vision that had etched an indelible mark in history, and to bring this faithfully into the millennium.
The recent critical acclaim of Dior’s 2007 haute couture and ready-to-wear collections, in which Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was cross-referenced with Dior’s New Look of 1947, affirmed the historical rigour that Robinson had breathed into the House, a stylish season that would become one of its greatest triumphs.
It was little over a month later that Isabella Blow was found dead at her country home in Gloucestershire. Unlike Robinson, on whom information is scant, Blow was complicit in the documentation of her life in print: the late fashion editor of Tatler and former fashion director of The Sunday Times’ Style magazine was never one to be troubled by the rules of propriety.
Blow was an aesthete of the original Wildean order, with a temperament so sophisticated in its cultural breadth and outlandishness, it seemed to exist beyond the law. The idiom that Blow brought to her art direction was one of the last glimmers of a golden age in fashion publishing; an era when editors like Diana Vreeland could coordinate photoshoots on Tahitian beaches from an office in Manhattan. A reputation for artistic extravagance marked Blow out from her contemporaries but her astronomical spending on shoots created unease.
Later in her career, perhaps thanks to the bourgeois corporate unction that smothers so many fashion offices, her ideas could leave colleagues perplexed, costing her jobs and leaving her struggling financially. With low points that would converge with Vreeland’s, an editor also made to feel the cold shoulder of publishing toward the end of her career, Blow’s story is perhaps proof that fashion does not value eccentricity as much as it would first have you believe.
Blow was, however defiantly resolved in her mission to champion the artists and designers about whom she felt most passionately, even if this meant putting them up in her mother-in-law’s basement for months on end. Without such displays of altruism, she would have been unable to bring designers like Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy to pre-eminence. She claimed that her passion for fashion bordered on insanity, yet it was through her pragmatism in helping new artists that her own creativity flourished most gloriously.
In contrast with Robinson’s discreet obituaries there was much coverage speculating on the circumstances of Isabella Blow’s death. Blow was notoriously candid with her emotions and known for opening up over the telephone to those she barely knew.
A self-confessed depressive, it was no secret that she had made several attempts at suicide. Neither did she conceal her rarefied but traumatic upbringing, during which she suffered the loss of a close younger brother and experienced the froideur of a mother who walked out of her life at age 14.
Life trajectories all too often seem to take on a nightmarish storybook quality when viewed on completion. In fact with the classic hallmarks of a ‘fast’ background and a thwarted childhood, the final chapter of Blow’s life might even appear pre-destined.
Many tags have been pinned on Blow, ‘eccentric/bonkers’ being the most common, yet these are sorely inadequate in describing an individual who, on account of her background, was placed in an atypically difficult position. From an upper class family, she was abandoned by her mother, disinherited by her father, and left £5,000 from a family fortune of millions. This meant she had to scrape it together as a cleaner along with a string of other menial jobs before moving to New York to begin her career.
Blow’s death raises uncomfortable issues of class, identity and understanding in an industry where it is doubtful her personal history ever elicited much real empathy.
Blow was a rarity in the British fashion press, an area of the industry currently sorely at risk of becoming overwrought by stale and excessively self-referential content. British fashion was very fortunate to have such an unrelentingly un-bourgeois doyenne in its ranks, especially one who could summon a repertoire of far-flung cultural references with such fearless irreverence.
If the future of fashion print lies in the hands of the Fashion Communications or Media graduate who may choose to rely on the formulaic solutions they are supplied on lecture handouts, then the British fashion media may find itself in a state of crippling mediocrity sooner than it thinks.
Fashion is not a sensibility that can be taught after all; it is an arena that is pushed forward by febrile originality and visual extremity. Qualities represented in the legacies of Steven Robinson and Isabella Blow.