Style Icon: Isabella Blow

By ModCloth Writer: Annie Morrison

“My style icon is anyone who makes a bloody effort,” said the absolutely fabulous, always intriguing, eccentric British beauty Isabella Blow. Blow, who is credited with discovering designer extraordinaire Alexander McQueen, British model Sophie Dahl, and milliner Philip Treacy, among many others, is an undisputed style icon. Her love of bright red lipstick, a tightly cinched waist, and of course, her internationally known penchant for over-the-top headgear, has inspired many, been admired by thousands, and has even created some serious style biters. Her frequent dress code? Classic couture with a zany twist – a pair of sophisticated Manolos, a form-fitting, fine fabric gown, haphazardly applied cardinal red lipstick, bright aqua eyeshadow, and an extraordinary hat.

Keep reading to learn more about Isabella Blow’s unrelenting fashion choices and her style legacy…

Isabella Blow (b. 1958, d. 2007) was born and raised in London. She worked odd jobs until she moved to New York City in 1979 to pursue an Ancient Chinese Art degree at Columbia University. After studying at Columbia for a year, Blow left school to work for French milliner Guy Laroche. This was her earliest venture into the enchanting world of stupendous hats, which she would be known for in the years to come. Eventually, Blow moved back to NYC and became acquainted with the coolest people of that era – Andy Warhol, Anna Wintour, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It is rumored that Warhol, as a former shoe illustrator, approached Blow because she was wearing a pair of mismatched Manolos, which he found to be downright darling. He became smitten with her savvy style, and he wasn’t the only one. Soon Blow became Wintour’s assistant at Vogue. She took the respected magazine by storm with her love of “costume” outfits, and her ability to dress for nearly every occasion, as long as it was fabulous. “I loved coming to the office,” Wintour said, “because 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.”

In 1986, Blow moved back across the pond to work for Tatler magazine, British Vogue, and London’s The Sunday Times Style Magazine. She fell in love, married in 1989, and hired unknown milliner Philip Treacy to design her wedding headdress. Blow instantly fell in love with Treacy’s exquisite craft, and the two formed a fast friendship. Blow encouraged Treacy to live under her roof and do nothing but design hats, which he eagerly accepted. From that point on, Blow was never seen without marvelous millinery. Some of my personal favorite Treacy hats worn by Blow include “The Ship,” a ridiculously realistic replica of an 18th century French ship with full rigging made from miniature buttons, and “Gilbert and George,” a fluorescent hairpiece made of hot pink and lime green lacquered ostrich feathers. In the summer of 2006, Cranbrook Art Museum presented an exhibition of the aesthetic relationship between Treacy and Blow, titled “When Philip Met Isabella – Philip Treacy’s Hats for Isabella Blow.” What I would give to go back in time and visit that exhibit, which was undoubtedly a deeply moving, almost voyeuristic view into Blow’s private hat collection. Try cultivating your own extravagant, Blow-inspired ensemble with the To No A-Veil Headband, A Berry Sprig Deal Headband, or the Fashion Fractal Hat.

In addition to being an international style icon, Blow was a fashion editor and brand consultant. However, her most legendary unofficial “role” was discovering and fostering fashion talent. She was incredibly perceptive and intuitive, and possessed an eerily accurate sense of fashion trends to come. Her flawless intuition resulted in some of today’s hottest fashion players, namely Alexander McQueen. Blow first spotted a virtually unknown Lee McQueen at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design senior show. She relentlessly pursued this man who she knew to possess a revolutionary talent, eventually buying his entire graduation collection for £5,000, which she paid for in installments of £100. She also encouraged McQueen to change his named to Alexander, after Alexander the Great. Blow’s knack for recognizing truly exception talent was reflected in her style. Granted, she wore daring, flashy clothes, but they were always tasteful, refined, and oozing with high culture. Her natural sense of style showcased an adoration for extreme beauty, detail, interesting silhouettes, and fun proportions, especially in regards to headgear. However, her extreme clothing and accessory choices were often used to distract others from herself, a sad but true physical manifestation of her incredibly low self-esteem and disabling depression. “I don’t use a hat as a prop,” Blow once said. “I use it as a part of me. If I am feeling really low, I go and see Philip, cover my face, and feel fantastic. Although, if I’m on a real low, it requires going to the doctor for a prescription.”

Even at her funeral, Blow donned one of the best hats in the room. Her coffin was surmounted by Philip Treacy’s final creation for his extravagant muse – a black sailing ship bonnet, which peaked over the crowd of mourning fashion icons at her highly attended funeral service. Actor Rupert Everett eulogized Blow while fighting back tears, “You were a one-off, a genius friend, your own creation in a world of copycats and I will miss you for the rest of my life.”

Following her death in 2007, Blow’s most notable discovery, Alexander McQueen, was inspired to create his spring/summer 2008 collection as an homage to Blow’s eccentric style. The collection was based on an avian theme, and many looks were reminiscent of some of Blow’s most infamous ensembles. McQueen’s models strutted down the catwalk in showstopping party dresses with plunging necklines, and as expected, feathered, avant-garde hats were commonplace. McQueen’s runway show, dedicated to and inspired by Blow, is a telling example of how one woman’s confident style sent ripples throughout the world of fashion.

Some of today’s biggest stars continue to be inspired by Blow’s captivating chicness. Regardless of your opinion on Lady Gaga’s music and general demeanor, her fashion choices are typically regarded as being very exciting, daring, and revolutionary. That being said, the next time you hear someone raving about how progressive Gaga’s style is, please voice a little credit to the late Isabella Blow. Some of Gaga’s most edgy ensembles are direct, dare I say it?, ripoffs of Blow’s boundary-breaking style, as seen in the photos below.

Isabella Blow commanded respect and attention with her mere presence, a feat only a true style icon can successfully pull off. Her flamboyant style left a heavy footprint on the sandy beaches of fashion, so often left undisturbed by those who are afraid to express their true style fantasies. I give her infinite credit for having such a fine-tuned vision of personal style, and I’m constantly inspired by her ability to maintain such an uncompromising appearance.

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11 Responses to Style Icon: Isabella Blow

  1. Jess 10/27/2009 at 5:33 pm #

    How wonderful to make my regular visit to the blog and see Issy Blow’s face! This is a wonderful piece on an unforgettable woman. I had the fortune to intern for her in 2002 at Tatler, while doing a study abroad in London as an undergraduate student studying journalism. She was not only everything you said, but also surprisingly gentle, kind, even a little shy and insecure, as well as inclusive, even to an American girl who was clueless about fashion but wanted to be a news writer. I will always remember her, dressed just as you described, hat and all, eating Chinese food with me at a nondescript Chinese restaurant. I will always be grateful for the spectacular, unexpected experience of knowing this woman. Thank you for your piece!

  2. Jen 10/27/2009 at 8:14 pm #

    This is AMAZING. She was and is truly an inspiration!

  3. monica burnett 10/28/2009 at 3:41 am #

    OH! i love her!

    http://monicaburnett.blogspot.com/

  4. Jess 10/28/2009 at 8:39 am #

    annie, what a great article!

  5. Hannah 10/28/2009 at 10:09 am #

    Fabulous.

  6. Livie 10/28/2009 at 11:09 am #

    I love her! Her style is a bit to much for me to wear, but it’s one of those things I fantasize about wearing someday when I’m brave enough!

  7. Melissa 10/29/2009 at 5:25 pm #

    Wonderful article! My fashion sense/sense of fashion history was majorly enriched.

  8. Arletta 02/16/2010 at 11:34 am #

    She looks like a wealthy old slapper.

  9. SD 02/16/2010 at 12:01 pm #

    Well said. I can not stand the way L Ga-Ga rips IB’s styles. I wonder what she’d wear if she didn’t have IB’s fashion resume to steal from? There is Nothing novel about L Ga-Ga – flash in the pan, pandering to pedestrian, tone-deaf, fashion wannabes who simply know no better.

    That said, I wonder who will remember L Ga-Ga in five – ten years? Isabella will forever remail in the annuls of fashion history as an original.

  10. CoutureLab 02/17/2010 at 7:43 pm #

    I completly agree with this article. Isabella Blow is an ORIGINAL ICON, who will be remember forever.
    As for Lady Ga-Ga i cannot stand her Isabella Blow and Salvador Dali fashion re-copy style.
    I don´t even think that Lady Ga-Ga has an “extravagant” sense of fashion because it´s not the clothes that makes a person, it´s the attitude.
    In my opinion her music is crap, it´s just too commercial and lacks depth.

  11. ashley 07/06/2010 at 5:18 pm #

    although I do give Ms.Blow credit I also give Lady Gaga credit for being a singer and song writer that is not afraid to follow great fashion designers in this point in time! Lady gaga is using wonderful styles as Ms.Blow’s to show younger generations that it is appropriate to be creative and different. You all must stop being so rude and give credit were credit is due. Dont be so quick to judge

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