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Illicit Millinery

In just this past year, Isabella Blow—who was a fashion director and “muse” before her death in 2007—has inspired two biographies, a play, and a movie. This is not altogether surprising. Blow’s story seems to offer up a dream biography: a flamboyant, even absurd heroine; prominent British families; fashion genius and fashion wildness; an affair with an Italian nicknamed Casanova; a string of unsuccessful suicide attempts—followed, in the end, by a successful one.

But it is precisely because Blow’s story is so ready for public consumption that biographers ought to tread carefully. After reading this latest biography by Lauren Goldstein Crowe, I could not shake the feeling that Blow was the one doing the writing. Crowe’s book is not so much a biography of Blow’s life as it is a biography of the life that Blow created for herself. She was a great self-inventor; and she invented Isabella Blow in the same way she invented some unforgettably extravagant fashion shoots for Vogue and Tatler. A friend of Blow once described her as “someone you can’t pigeonhole.” Of such people, the friend added: “It’s better to get behind them and enjoy the ride on their coattails.” Riding Isabella Blow’s coattails is ultimately not enough to sustain a biography, even if the coattails were designed by Alexander McQueen.

This is not to say that Crowe’s book is dull. Blow found herself in some fairly outrageous situations, and Crowe does a good job recounting them. Born in 1958 to a superficially aristocratic British family—the kind that has a lot more snobbery than cash—Blow had a childhood that was “‘traditional’ in the Edwardian sense.” According to Crowe, “her parents were glamorous, mysterious figures who would dress the children up to pose for photographs…and then disappear off to their outings.” Though her family had money for generations, her gambling grandfather lost most of it. When Isabella’s father died, she and her sisters were left only £5000 each. Isabella inherited her grandfather’s careless ways, and spent far too much on things she could never afford: a “very Bond” silver BMW, the most expensive hotel rooms in the world, and, of course, clothes—an infinite variety of clothes, many of which, “no matter how expensive, would frequently end up on the floor, ripped and covered in stains.” 

Crowe says that “it was unthinkable that a woman from [Blow’s] class would have to work for a living,” but for Blow work in the fashion industry became addictive; if anything, she worked too much. As a fashion director, she originated the bluebloods-on-the-runway trend, casting her friends in photo shoots and dressing them up in whatever captured her fancy. One such shoot, entitled “Kiss My Feet,” was a tribute to Manolo Blahnik and the most expensive shoot in Tatler’s history. Models including Grace Jones and Fergie wore Blahniks and posed in locations all around the world. Another one of her shoots, based on a battle scene from the film Excalibur, included “a mini-dress by Alexander McQueen, a pair of chain mail trousers by Jeremy Scott, a chain mail one-shoulder dress by Christian Dior, a headdress by Paco Rabanne, and a knitted chain mail top by Lainey Keogh with suits of armor borrowed from the film.”

Out of all the kooky ensembles worn by the fashion elite, Blow’s were always the kookiest. “I loved coming to the office,” said Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, for whom Blow once worked as an assistant. “I never knew what to expect. One day she’d be a maharaja, the next day a punk, and then she’d turn up as a corporate secretary in a proper little suit and gloves.” Even more than her outfits, however, Blow is best known for discovering unknown fashion talents and helping to make them into superstars using her equally well-connected—though significantly better endowed—friends. “I feel like a pig that is looking for truffles,” she said, “I’m looking everywhere. No matter where they are, I’ll find them.”

The most successful of these “truffles” was the designer Alexander McQueen. Like Blow, he had a fondness for shock, and one never really knew what he was going to pull out of his hat next. At various shows, he featured live wolves, a hologram of Kate Moss which appeared like a poof of smoke in a glass pyramid, and ten-inch “armadillo” heels. And, also like Blow he killed himself, a week before the Fall 2010 collections.

To her credit, Crowe does not delve too deeply into McQueen’s own Cinderella life—he was born poor and misunderstood, and died universally celebrated as a “genius”; she mentions it only in the context of how it relates to Blow’s story. This may be partly because McQueen, before his death, refused to talk to Crowe, but the decision actually works to the book’s advantage. Instead Crowe focuses on Blow’s relationship with the milliner Philip Treacy, which may have been even more important than the one with McQueen because of her inordinate love of hats. “If I am feeling really low, I go and see Philip, cover my face, and feel fantastic,” she said. Indeed, the doctors at the psychiatric hospital treating Blow for her depression insisted she suffered from an addiction to hats, and “instructed her to stop hiding, to come out and show the world the ‘true’ Isabella.” Treacy thus became, in Crowe’s amusing phrase, a “pusher of illicit millinery.”

It’s no wonder the doctors tried to explain Blow’s clothing choices; as beautiful and fantastic as they sometimes were, they were equally absurd and impractical. For instance, on a trip to Brazil, she wore Manolos to walk around cobblestone streets. Because she was in so much pain, her friend suggested she buy espadrilles. She put them on and began to cry—“I can’t. I can’t…Every time I look down at my feet I feel so depressed.” She stuck with the Manolos.

But fashion has always been about absurdity and impracticality—something Isabella knew better than anyone. Though it is decidedly not an art, fashion is also more than just an industry—it occupies its own world somewhere between the two. However, as sales for haute couture—the epitome of clothing excesses—languish, and safe (and relatively inexpensive) designers like Tory Burch and Jason Wu flourish, the fashion world is becoming indistinguishable from the corporate one. Particularly in a recession, companies want designers to make items that will sell. Period.

Yet, as designers focus more and more on the bottom line, they risk sacrificing everything that is wonderful about fashion. The show aspect of a fashion show is fading away; Isabella, and to a lesser extent, McQueen, belong to a breed that is, quite literally, dying out. 

But maybe this isn’t such an unhealthy thing; Blow used (or abused) fashion in order to manipulate her image and avoid dealing with her real life. “Her clothes had become the armor she used to protect herself, and she’d become addicted to the power they gave her.”

When unhappiness struck, she clung to her image to save her—only to find that it was not enough. After her second marriage to Detmar Blow—who is also writing a biography of her—failed, she tried numbing her pain with her work. She found other lovers—most notably, an Italian she nicknamed Casanova who took advantage of her and her penchant for spending obscene amounts of money she didn’t have. She also had a fall-out with McQueen, who never gave her a job at his company, which she saw as a personal insult. Towards the end of her life, when she was battling severe depression, she reconciled with Detmar, though it was not done entirely out of love, “at this point I’d settle for a hamster,” she told her therapist.

Starting in 2005, she became obsessed with suicide, and in 2006, she made her first attempt at it by swallowing 118 pills. In the next year, she would try another pill overdose, driving into a van, jumping in front of a train, jumping from a motorway overpass, and, finally, drinking a lethal amount of weed killer.  

Though Crowe does show us Blow at all these most vulnerable points, the transition from perfectly happy (if that was ever the case) to suicidal comes off as abrupt and awkward. This is mainly because, as Crowe acknowledges, Blow “lived her life as a story, one that she frequently made up on the fly. It made for captivating conversation, but also made it tricky to know where the truth ended and her fantasy began.” Crowe seems too easily taken in by Blow’s fantasy life. Blow was a mildly ridiculous figure, or to put it more kindly, she was a great English eccentric, and amid all the funny stories and over-the-top anecdotes Blow-the-eccentric easily outshines everything else. For a woman who never stepped out of character, this is perhaps a fitting limitation. In death as in life, Isabella has managed to keep her hat firmly on.

Isabel Schwab was a literary intern at The New Republic.