Isabella Blow: A truly original style icon

Her tastes were unorthodox, her style was uncompromising and her expenses were legendary. Even in the world of fashion, which celebrates flamboyance and idolises the outrageous, the stylist, muse and taste-maker Isabella Blow was a true original. Her death this week, aged just 48, has left her friends and colleagues in shock. Susannah Frankel salutes a style icon
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Isabella Blow had many friends in the fashion industry, but it's safe to say that they were unlikely to be the people signing off her monthly expenses. Like many things about this perfectly flamboyant creature, her disbursements were infamous. At The Sunday Times, where she worked as fashion director in the late 1990s, the joke was that Blow took a cab to the bathroom every morning, although she is reported to have later discovered public transport and enjoyed using it immensely.

Also while at that paper, it was not unknown for Blow to travel all the way to Russia, for example, in search of the perfect pair of gloves for a particular picture. If, upon her return, she still wasn't sure these were quite right, they would duly be sent backwards and forwards by courier, ad infinitum, tweaked a little here, entirely remade there - only to be rejected on the day of the shoot in question because, well, they simply weren't a suitable colour. And, in Blow's highly sensitised world, an even remotely unsuitable colour simply wouldn't do.

In such matters - as in so many things - there was something profoundly anachronistic about this highly contrived, diminutive woman who was happy to hobble about in shoes that resembled nothing more than cardboard boxes should she believe their creator to be an artist. This seemed all the more remarkable in a world likely to embrace the most visually unappealing, mass-produced performance footwear imaginable over and above anything that offered a greater aesthetic challenge. Isabella Blow made a career out of never - repeat never - wearing trainers, or indeed jeans, and couldn't understand why anyone else working in fashion was lazy enough to do so.

Instead, she would dutifully step out in the Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf's Atomic Bomb collection, say, based entirely on a mushroom cloud, and this despite the fact that even the then almost entirely unknown designers never really intended it to go into production.

In retrospect, it's a miracle she ever made it through the door in her outfit the size of the proverbial back of a bus and covered with oversized pompoms to boot. "It's by Viktor & Rolf," she patiently told the endless stream of photographers and groupies who followed her everywhere she went during the circus that is the twice-yearly international fashion collections, thereby ensuring that the designers' names were permanently inscribed on the map. Then there was the Joan of Arc moment, complete with dragging pewter chain that she wore to dinner chez Karl Lagerfeld, where, by all accounts, it wreaked merry havoc with his ivory carpets.

Most of all, Blow was famed for wearing the sculptural creations of the milliner Philip Treacy - these served both to hide her face (which she considered ugly) and to forestall the requisite (and in her case largely unwanted) fashion of air-kissing - and the hourglass, highly sexualised designs of Alexander McQueen.

Blow supported both Treacy and McQueen (McQueen described her as "a cross between a Billingsgate fishwife and Lucretia Borgia") early in their respective careers, putting them up in her flat in Elizabeth Street, Pimlico. Prior to that, she had bought McQueen's entire degree collection for the princely sum of £5,000 and wore it everywhere, immediately establishing him as the designer name to see and be seen in.

In 2002, an exhibition entitled When Philip Met Isabella at London's Design Museum celebrated the collaboration with the milliner. Blow was still working with Treacy on developing the show at the time of her death. It opens in St Petersburg later this month.

It is part of fashion folklore that Isabella Blow's love of fashion sprang from her grandmother, Lady Vera Delves Broughton, a photographer, explorer, hunter and (according to her grand-daughter, at least), a one-time cannibal. "But she wasn't strictly a cannibal," Blow once told The Observer. "She was in Papua New Guinea and she had some dinner and she said, 'God, that was delicious. What was it? It's so sweet.' And they admitted it was a poor local tribesman who had been grilled up. That was in the Thirties, and she didn't do it knowingly. In the back of Who's Who, where people list their pastimes, she just put 'once a cannibal'."

Blow's grandfather, Sir Jock Delves Broughton, sold off Doddington, the family estate in Cheshire since the 14th century, to pay off his gambling debts. After his man-eating wife left him, he moved to Kenya where he was accused of the White Mischief murder of Lord Erroll. He was acquitted, but went on to commit suicide.

As a child, Isabella lived in a small cottage in the grounds of the castle that should, by rights, have been hers. Her father, Sir Evelyn Delves Broughton, went on to disinherit his daughter, leaving her no more than a few thousand pounds when he died. In 1979, aged 20, Blow moved to New York to study ancient chinese art at Columbia University, sharing a room with the similarly blue-blooded Dynasty beauty Catherine Oxenberg.

Her break into fashion came two years later, when she was introduced to the then fashion director of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, by Bryan and Lucy Ferry. Blow was hired as Wintour's assistant and later promoted to organise fashion shoots under Andre Leon Talley, Vogue's editor-at-large to this day. "In a world that's largely driven by corporate culture, she was a joy to have," Wintour said of her late colleague this week. "She was not too good at getting to the office before 11am, but then she would arrive dressed as a maharajah or an Edith Sitwell figure. I don't think she ever did my expenses, but she made life much more interesting."

Making life more interesting is, of course, what fashion at its best is all about. Small wonder, then, that from then on, Blow's career gathered momentum. By the mid-1980s, she found herself back in London working as assistant to Michael Roberts, both at Tatler - then presided over by the brilliant Mark Boxer - and The Sunday Times. It is a mark of her unusual generosity that at this point in time, having discovered from my parents that I might be interested in a career in fashion, Blow attempted to turn her formidable job-scouting properties in my direction.

I was a lowly editorial assistant at the now defunct style magazine Blitz. She insisted she introduce me to the powers that be at Vogue. I arrived at Vogue House feeling suitably intimidated and even more drab to find myself immediately swept up by the lady in question, dressed, I seem to remember, in a white fairy dress that had seen better days and her trademark crimson lipstick, so hurriedly applied that it had slipped halfway down her chin.

Still, with a grace and ease that is unusual in fashion but was standard to her, she welcomed me warmly and led me upstairs to the Vogue offices. Finding the features editor absent, she scribbled a note to her nonetheless. "I came to see you with Susannah Frankel, one of my GREAT, GREAT friends. You really should see her..." Etc, etc. Suffice it to say that, intensely shy as I was at that time, I wanted the ground to swallow me up. Equally significant, meanwhile, was the fact that I'd never actually met Isabella Blow before, and I'm pretty sure that she hadn't read a word I'd written. I was aware then, as I am now, of the kindness of that gesture which, of course, went on to become legendary.

Isabella was a great stylist. True, her work was strictly autobiographical, depicting grand, gothic, sexually ambiguous heroes and heroines in equally grand, gothic clothing, and often with grand, crumbling gothic mansions as homes. Given the advertising-fuelled medium that much contemporary fashion photography has become, though, such heartfelt content was always a breath of fresh air.

Equally, anyone who has ever sat next to Blow at a show will testify to the fact that she lived and breathed fashion, and that, even after 20 years working in the industry, she was barely able to contain herself, bouncing in her seat in a crinoline skirt ("Oh God, I forgot to wear knickers," she once wailed in my direction) and whooping and cheering when anything that took her fancy passed her by, while all around her remained po-faced - or just plain jaded.

As is so often the case, though, any exuberance served, at least in part, as a foil to a rather more fragile heart. If Isabella Blow's appearance was fierce, the rapacious exterior functioned not only as a joyful expression of individuality and escape from the banal, but also as a protective layer.

Once, at a dinner attended by, among others, Blow and Alexander McQueen, the designer told his one-time muse that the dress she was wearing - a sugar-pink, empire-line affair of his own making that displayed a milky-white cleavage that might best have been described as magnificent - looked like "it was made for you". At this point, all attention was immediately diverted to Blow, whose reaction, one might have assumed, would be nothing short of blasé. Instead, she appeared to be positively overcome, blushing, her eyes brimming with tears.

In 1988, Blow met her husband-to-be, Detmar, at a wedding in Salisbury Cathedral. They were engaged a little over two weeks later and married in Gloucester Cathedral in 1989. Four years later, she was working for British Vogue where she collaborated with superstar photographers such as Steven Meisel and launched the careers of Honor Fraser, Stella Tennant and, most famously, Sophie Dahl, whom she once compared to "a blow-up doll with brains". Her marriage fell apart in 2004, although the two were later reconciled.

It is well known that over the past five years, Blow suffered terribly from depression. She felt betrayed by at least some of those she had supported and, although she was still working as a fashion editor at Tatler, her profile was nowhere near as high as it had once been.

Following her death last weekend, reportedly due to ovarian cancer, Michael Roberts summed up Isabella's contribution to the world beautifully.

"She was like an exotic bird," he said. "Issy was living rather like Diana Vreeland, the legendary fashion editor of the Fifties. She seemed to be trying to translate the styles of the Fifties and Sixties to modern life in a dull office in Hanover Square. At times, it could be difficult for her. Life tramples on people like that."

Whether life was entirely fair to Isabella Blow is, like so many other things about her, likely to remain a mystery. Whichever way one chooses to look at it, she was one of the great fashion characters of the past quarter of a century. In an industry that today is more bland than exotic, she will be missed.

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