Blow Vs. Blow: Isabella Blow Biographies


I first became aware of Isabella Blow while studying the hat designer Philip Treacy in Graduate school at New York University in 2003/2004. Though she is linked, most often with eccentric and surreal hats (“The Mad Hatter”, “The Sad Hatter”, and “Illicit Millinery” are just a few articles), her work as a stylist for major European and American fashion magazines and uncanny ability for finding and promoting the next generation of design talent were clearly her legacy.

Isabella Blow in McQueen Ready-To-War (Backstage at McQueen’s Fall 2004 show). Via

The design talents of Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy, and a number of models, designers and artists would not be nearly so well-known if Isabella Blow had not been in their lives. Her impact on the fashion world was on a grand scale, and it continues to ripple through the layers of the fashion system. Isabella’s priceless collection of high fashion was to be auctioned off when fellow couture maven Daphne Guinness purchased the entire collection ( Financial Times ). It’s probable that some of Isabella’s collection will be included in the Daphne Guinness exhibition at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (Sept – Dec 2011) and in the major Spring show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute,  Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (May 4-July 31, 2011).

Source: Chic On The Street

Isabella Blow has always been a controversial figure, so it should come as no surprise that there is controversy surrounding the telling of her life story. She died by her own hand in 2007, and there are now two biographies of her life on the market.  Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion (Thomas Dunne Books) by Lauren Goldstein Crowe  and Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow (Harper Collins) by Isabella’s husband, Detmar Blow with Tom Sykes both have the same publication date (November 9) and use the same cover image.  The Daily Beast recently commented on the rivalry between the books/authors, and also suggests that Goldstein Crowe’s book has a film deal. When I asked her about it, Goldstein Crowe said, “Yes, I can confirm that the book has been optioned by Anders Palm. [And] yes, Philip [Treacy] is also involved.” A third book of photography book called Isabella Blow (Thames & Hudson) edited by Martina Rink (Isabella’s former assistant) is also new to market. The Daily Beast‘s coverage also suggests that Daphne Guinness may write her own biography of Isabella.

Book Reviews:

Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion by Lauren Goldstein Crowe

Reviewed by Heather A. Vaughan

Goldstein Crowe’s book, with blurbs by amazing fashion insiders including Valentino, Philip Treacy and Manholo Blahnik, attempts to tell the story of Isabella’s ‘life in fashion.’ In many ways it is successful, but it’s downside is clearly addressed by the author – it is the story told from an outsiders perspective. Goldstein Crowe has previously penned The Towering World of Jimmy Choo and is practiced at researching major figures in the fashion world. Her interviews tell much of Isabella’s relationships with the aristocracy, with important ‘names’ in the field, as well as her relationships with specific articles of clothing. For example:

“Soon Isabella began to ask [designer Julien] Macdonald to make things for her, often via handwritten notes. ‘She’d write, ‘Look at Cezanne and make me a sweater like that,’ he said. ‘It could be about a color or a poem, but there was always some literature or art reference–some mad reference. Often, I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.’ Isabella would follow up by sending color photocopies in the mail.'” (138-139)

Though the entire book is likely to be of interest to fashion enthusiasts and dress historians, the central chapters 5-10 are the most useful and most compelling. They take you through her work at a number of publications both in the US and UK (Tatler, Vogue, Vanity Fair and The Sunday Times – and her work for Anna Wintour, Andre Leon Talley and Michael Roberts), her involvement with quite a few designers (Philp Treacy, Alexander McQueen, Jeremy Scott, Manolo Blahnik, Rifat Ozbek, Hussein Chalayan, and Malcum McLaren, among others) in addition to photographers (including David LaChapelle and Donald McPherson), and the aristocrats (friends and relatives) she frequently convinced to become models.

This is a fast and easy read, focusing equally on her work in fashion world as on her personal life (such as her obsessions with property, the aristocracy,  and sex). However, the author’s detailed description of ancestry (both for Isabella, and other pertinent characters) goes on a bit longer than is necessary,  and towards the end it is easy to get lost in the ‘resume’ of her life. More importantly, there seem to be times when more analysis of events would be useful and significantly contribute to the value of the book.

Isabella marries Detmar Blow in an early Philip Treacy headdress Image source: Isabella Blow Facebook

The book does address her depression and suicide attempts, as well as problems in her relationship with Detmar Blow. I think the book carefully avoids being overly gossipy (it notably omits the actual name of the Italian lover she had while still married to Detmar). All in all, however, it’s a book I’d highly recommend it as a resource to academics in fashion studies, as well as to general enthusiasts. The book is well-footnoted and sourced appropriately. (The New Republic also published a review of the book on November 18).

Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow By Detmar Blow

Reviewed by Dr. Miriam Basilio, Assistant Professor of Art History and Museum Studies at New York University

Detmar Blow’s book, Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow has a promo-video, which provides good background on their aristocratic life together (note the rug that Detmar walks across was designed by William Morris).

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Readers of Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow will gain insight into Isabella’s complex personality and the experiences that shaped her creative vision. Although this is not a scholarly book, her husband Detmar Blow and co-author Tom Sykes trace the most important events that marked the life of the stylist and muse, not shying away from details of the devastating illness that led to her tragic suicide in 2007. Extensive interviews with friends, family and her colleagues in the fashion industry among them Anna Wintour shed light on her biography and to a lesser extent the evolution of her influential career, such as her relationships with Phillip Treacy and Alexander McQueen. Particularly useful were the accounts of her family history as well as Detmar Blow’s, since she was devoted to the preservation of both of their estates during her life. They clearly influenced her Gothic aesthetic and were the settings for a number of the fashion stories for which she was a stylist. (She also used family members as models repeatedly.)

Isabella Blow in a dress by Alexander McQueen and a Philip Treacy hat. Photographed by Francois-Marie Banier. Source: New Yorker, March 19, 2001.

The book is divided into very brief –two to three page –chapters that break up the narrative flow, at times leaving one seeking clarification or further details. In some ways, the lack of distance between the author and his subject and the conversational tone evokes memoirs written by other English aristocrats such as Nancy Mitford and indeed, his acknowledgments read like Burke’s Peerage. The tone is gossipy and informal, and the intimate details of Isabella’s life before and during her marriage evoke her brilliance, humor, charisma, and love of life while not shying away from the horrific details of the final years of her illness and suicide. I had a sense that Detmar himself sought to understand his late wife by undertaking extensive research to reconstruct her private life, and this led me to empathize with him as reader. At the same time, an academic biography and scholarly exhibitions devoted to her career are also necessary to better understand her vital contributions to fashion.

Additional Resources:

The Mad Muse of Waterloo” New Yorker, March 19, 2001.

The Sad HatterNew York Magazine, July 15, 2007.

Illicit MillineryThe New Republic, November 18, 2010.

Philip Treacy: “When Philip Met Isabella” by Philip Treacy, Isabella Blow, and Hamish Bowles

Just for Fun:

In 2004, I took myself on a trip to London and found myself in Philip Treacy’s hat shop. I tried on a few hats, and just couldn’t help sharing the photos with you:

* Isabella Blow, 1995.  (Photo: Snowdon) Via New York Magazine, “The Sad Hatter”

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