Isabella Blow – In Flight from Convention

I came a bit late to the party, having only ‘discovered’ Isabella Blow in recent years. But she has captured my imagination with her playful approach to fashion, her irreverence that still retained respect for the industry and her passion, which ran at full tilt. I was, therefore, thrilled when the Somerset House announced a major exhibition of the ‘extraordinary life and wardrobe of the late British patron of fashion and art’.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! is a joint exhibit with Somerset House, the Isabella Blow Foundation and Central Saint Martins Collage of Arts and Design, running through March 2014. I attended on a recent Thursday, when they have extended evening hours, and could have stayed for hours, there is so much to see and read.

The exhibit chronicles her early life with family photographs, newspaper clippings and exhibit plaques, and then quickly moves into her working life and her time with Anna Wintour at US Vogue, Tatler and then British Vogue.

The A/W ’96 collection of Alexander McQueen was on display in full glory and was breathtaking in its execution. I loved so many of these pieces, particularly a black lace and lilac satin skirt with a train and a lilac boned silk corset with black lace detailing and black jet beads. As Blow wrote about McQueen in Harpers Bazaar, ‘What attracted me to Alex was the way he takes ideas from the past and sabotages them with his cut to make them thoroughly now and in the context of today. It is the complexity and severity of his approach to cut that makes him so modern’.

The next collection on display was Philip Treacy’s 22-hat show from A/W ’96 and I walked in circles, mouth open in wonder, unable to take my eyes off each intricate and delicate creation. Several pieces would have been at home in a modern art gallery, and the footage of the fashion show was thrilling. The idea of owning a hat like one of these and having occasion to wear it out is one of my dreams. This was my favourite part of the exhibit.

There was a fabulous room of random objects – phones, tubes of lipstick, a napkin with a self-caricature of Blow, a rolodex, mismatched shoes – each item speaking volumes about their owner and her approach to life and work and fashion. Then a long hallway lined with mannequins, clothed primarily in Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy and Manolo Blahniks – I was in heaven.

This exhibit makes clear that her knowledge and passion for fashion was more than just a passing fancy or high society interest. One of the exhibit plaques read:

Her lexicon was rich and varied. As Geordie Greig, her editor at Tatler recalled, ‘she could talk about fashion with complete rigour in terms of silhouette, shape and historical context. She was an academic with a punk rocker’s anarchic sense.’ Hers was a style of irreverence, in flight from convention.

The exhibit felt very much the tribute it was meant to be – not only to Isabella Blow, but also to the designers and artists she believed in and championed throughout her career. It’s a moving and beautiful show and I highly recommend it. Tickets are £12.50 at Somerset House.

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