Isabella Blow once said the whole point of her job was to make bad clothes look good, and she certainly had a knack for disguising what she considered to be the nastier things in life. The idiosyncratic stylist, who committed suicide in 2007, spent 48 years embellishing, telling part-truths, and gussying up reality to reshape her world and mask all the unpleasantness.
“She turned everything into a better story,” said Lauren Goldstein Crowe, whose biography of Blow, “Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion” (Thomas Dunne Books), hits shelves this week. Although much of the time, the fantastical stories — about her evil stepmother, her pittance of an inheritance from her father, her betrayal by friends — were Blow’s means of coping, “a lot of it was defense mechanism. Every time she got hit, her imagination would get stronger and stronger,” says Crowe.
Thanks in part to Blow’s imagination, the tome is an entertaining read packed with details about Blow’s bawdy but aloof mother, her pre-punk penchant for safety pins as accessories and the office disasters during her first job under Anna Wintour at Vogue. But the real story is bigger than Blow. It’s a reflection of 20th century social upheaval and the rapidly changing roles of the British upper classes.
“It is fascinating that all of these [upper-class] girls were chucked out of school at 16,” Crowe says. “They were expected to marry well, and there was no thought given to what they would do. ‘Only lesbians go to university.’ That’s what Isabella’s father would say. He came from the Edwardian era. He did not give much thought to what would happen to these girls,” she continues, referring to Blow and her two younger sisters.
The outrageous stylist was part of the first generation of upper-class women who were forced to work for a living, but her only professional skills came from stints at secretarial school in Oxford and London. In addition, she’d had a typical upper-class upbringing, which meant a chilly home environment and little interaction with her parents. “They all went through so much trauma, they were raised by distant parents, a lot of them became addicted to drugs. Heroin was rife among her set,” says Crowe, who traces Blow’s own history of depression to her late teens.
But the writer also mounts a major defense of the fashion industry, which was brutally attacked by the British press — and by some industry figures — as the force that finally destroyed Blow. “Fashion didn’t kill her,” insists Crowe. “The problem was her lifestyle exceeded any amount of money she could possibly make. In her mind, she was living the life of her ancestors, and that world was over.”
Crowe believes, instead, that the industry took very good care of Blow. “She had lots of well-paid jobs. Alexander McQueen paid for her hospital stays and lent her money on occasion, and Daphne Guinness paid her credit cards. When Isabella first came out of the Priory [London’s celebrity rehab clinic], she lived with Philip Treacy and Stefan Bartlett.”
Blow’s friends are many. On Monday night, they gathered at Claridge’s in London to celebrate Crowe’s book, and last week they attended an event in New York for another book, “Blow by Blow,” written by Blow’s widower, Detmar, and Tom Sykes. “Blow by Blow” just hit the States, but it’s been panned by the British press since it was released in September — which only boosts Crowe’s confidence that her distance actually helped her debunk Blow’s carefully constructed myths. “Everything most of us know about Isabella came via Isabella,” she says. “So it took a lot of time to realize I had to get around her to paint the accurate portrait.”