Essay: A Host at Heart

by P.M Dixon on 23 December 2013

Writer P.M Dixon unpicks Blows role as a mentor and friend to a variety of young creatives.

Writer P.M Dixon unpicks Blows role as a mentor and friend to a variety of young creatives.

Isabella Blow has been remembered as a fantasist, a woman enraptured and soothed by the visual. It is true she escaped into this other realm when reality’s harsh canvas weighed too heavy upon her: those who knew her, remember her stories were littered with exaggeration and even, on occasion, untruths. Such is the licence of the raconteur. Her anecdotes varied depending on her audience, and as is often the case with romantics, her accounts perhaps scribbled over actuality, re-writing history in her own, more vibrant pen. Yet Blow was more than just an aesthete with a neat turn of phrase, and as we have established, the title 'muse' does not adequately summarise her either. We know she inspired her subjects – for subjects is perhaps how she saw them in her more sardonic moments – whether they were artists, designers or strangers in the street. Her habit of transforming the mundane to the fabulous has also been widely recalled, and it is likely she was a conscious orchestrator in this.

Lauren Goldstein Crowe’s book Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion, recalls Blow affectionately as a self-styled lady of the manor: ‘When she married Detmar and gained some control over Hilles, she also gained a fantastic stage from which she could cast her own life…(famous names) were not just friends – they were actors in her play, and she expected them to behave accordingly.’ [1]

But Blow was more than a character in her own play. Her kindness and generosity were not scripted or pretend. Speak to anyone close to her, and you learn that at heart, she was a nurturer. Her sadness in not being able to bear children was something of which she frequently spoke, and it is probable their absence saw her channel energy into others around her. Isabella’s nieces remember her as an eternally glamorous but deeply maternal figure, cooking at the stove at Hilles (she had invited her younger sister and family to live in a cottage on the estate) – whilst mothering all who came into the fold: ‘She was quite protective…she gave a lot of love and energy. I remember her being in to her cooking. I especially remember she liked roast chicken and tarragon – a Nigel Slater recipe.' [2]

This domestic aspect of Blow seems incongruous with the fun loving coquette she has been remembered as. Her complexity is worth noting; in one instance she might have been baring her breast, red mouth stretched wide with hilarity – and in the next, focused on preparing a meal for her extended (and often self appointed) family. The two parts formed her whole. As Deborah Milner remembers: ‘If you went round at 9 in the morning she would greet you in a kimono with crystals all around the edge, whilst she was making tea and porridge for Detmar [Blow, her husband]. She drew you into her world.’ [3]

‘Her belief in us was astonishing… She stood me in front of Karl Lagerfeld like she was doing him a favour, not me a favour.'

Milner was one of a number of young designers Blow invited to live in, and work from, her home in Belgravia. Her support, they would discover, was not limited to applause. Milner is quick to emphasise how practical Isabella was: ‘It wasn’t just airy fairy… it wasn’t just emotional help. She would actually do something to help you.' [3]

In meeting Philip Treacy, then a student at the Royal College of Art, Blow’s radar for talent was triggered, and she set about encouraging him in any way she saw possible. Whether it was commissioning hats she could scarce afford, housing him and his work, or parading him in front of prospective buyers, she was relentless in her conviction. Treacy recalls: ‘Her belief in us was astonishing… She stood me in front of Karl Lagerfeld like she was doing him a favour, not me a favour. And she believed that.' [4] At the time of this encounter, Treacy was a mere 22 years old.

Well documented is the story of Lee McQueen, the boy from Lewisham whom Blow ‘discovered’. The reality was that McQueen’s prodigious talents had already won him a place on the competitive Central Saint Martin’s MA course, but Blow remains integral to the story. As Judith Watt, fashion historian at Central Saint Martins, and author of Alexander McQueen, Fashion Visionary notes: ‘Her support would prove invaluable, and key to this was the fact that she showcased his work because she wore it… It was Blow who undoubtedly pushed him toward setting up on his own.' [4]

Hilles staged the backdrop for weekend retreats much needed by these young artists. With its giant oriel window buttressed up from the sloping Stroud Valley and illuminating the 17th century tapestries that hung from the walls, the house would be an unending source of inspiration for their enquiring minds, providing a historical context that triggered entire collections. Essentially, it would also provide them with hot meals and a place of refuge, away from London’s workrooms and constraints.

Did Isabella’s love of entertaining stem from the loss of her ancestral home, Doddington Hall? Did her instinct to take care of people derive from the shattering loss of her infant brother, an incident she most likely witnessed as a child? It doesn’t really matter. What is important is that this impulse to nurture was as much a part of her as was her celebrated eye for beauty. It was a characteristic from which creative minds benefitted significantly. In Treacy’s words: ‘She was like our mum (me and Alexander.) She used to look after us... She gave us everything.’ [4]

Vitally, Blow did not stumble upon talent, but strode out, fierce and impassioned, in search of it. When talent she found, she did not stand back and admire her discovery, soft palms clapping in approval. Instead, she invited people into her home, fed their bodies and engaged their minds.

Her distain for convention was not affected or self-conscious, and because of this, she was a relief: a breathing spectacle, who lived her life regardless of approval or consequence. Blow was a diversion from the humdrum, the vogue and the norm. When she wore a lobster or a replica ship upon her head, her intention was not, as some assumed, to shock. She had progressed from such schoolgirl thrill seeking; her appearance had become a means of self-expression. As Treacy remembers: ‘She didn’t see how people reacted. And she wasn’t looking for their reaction. Clothes and hats and how she dressed – it was a personal experience for her.’ [4]

On occasions experts failed to see the genius she knew to be present in her friends, before their names were etched on fashion’s hallowed page – Isabella did not commiserate and move on. She thrust these people back into the limelight, repeatedly determined that the world would come knocking. Isabella was proud to bear a thing of beauty whilst others raised eyebrows; who cared if bystanders were slow on the uptake, or worse, blind to the brilliance set before them? Over and again, she nurtured the person in whom she found creativity, and their talent responded. In time she would be validated: as in the case of her particular protégés, come knocking, the world did.

Image from the 'Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!' exhibition catalogue, shot by Nick Knight

[1] Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion by Lauren Goldstein Crowe – published by Quartet Books. (P.182.)

[2] Taken from interview with Rossie Cooper 18/12/13.

[3] Taken from interview with Deborah Milner by Lou Stoppard, courtesy of SHOWstudio

[4] Taken from interview Philip Treacy by Lou Stoppard, courtesy of SHOWstudio

[5] Alexander McQueen, Fashion Visionary by Judith Watt (Goodman Books, 2012) (P.27)




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