Isabella Blow. (Credit unknown)
Try to encapsulate the spirit of Isabella Blow into a single word and you’ll likely come up with eccentric. Shonagh Marshall, the curator behind a new exhibition of Blow’s clothing at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, respectfully disagrees. “Everyone says she’s eccentric, but I really think she was idiosyncratic,” Marshall explains, pointing to three silver Manolo Blahnik sandals on display, all Swarovski studded and all for a right foot, to make her case that Blow’s fantastical nature was a by-product of her interesting life, not a put-on disposition.
The London-based curator would know. After Daphne Guinness purchased Blow’s clothing collection in 2010, she recruited Marshall to be its keeper. In the years since, the curator has categorized the thousands of garments and paper records, and the pair have produced two exhibits of Blow’s archive, one in London and one in Toronto. When the opportunity to present Blow’s collection Down Under came up, they jumped on it. “Isabella Blow: A Fashionable Life” is their resulting go at translating the outfits of one of fashion’s most eclectic dressers into a story about the woman behind the clothes. “It’s all about the way that clothes can tell a story of a life lived,” Marshall begins. “People have been commenting on the exhibition that it’s really different from other fashion exhibitions that show designers’ pieces in immaculate condition, perfectly presented, and they tell the story of perhaps the craft or the design, whereas this is really about the woman.”
The show opens with an Alexander McQueen for Givenchy piece from a 1997 collection that Blow purchased from the house for 35,000 francs. “She tried to expense it back to Sunday Times Style as business clothes!” Marshall laughs. “We thought that was a really good way to start the exhibition. Obviously, she died by her own hand in 2007, and there’s such a sadness associated with both her and McQueen that we wanted to get the wit—she was really funny.” From there, looks are organized by themes like sex and the body (a selection of corsets and a see-through number) and fragility (delicate McQueen numbers that bear the wear of a life lived in them).
A highlight for fashion fans will be the last gallery, dedicated to Blow’s life at Hilles House in Gloucestershire, the family home of her husband, Detmar Blow. Of course, there are no Barbour jackets here—the gallery is still filled with McQueen pieces and Philip Treacy hats. A video on display shows Blow and a very young Lee McQueen meandering through the grass of the estate, the designer amid a falconry lesson Blow had arranged for him. There’s no pomp, no pretension, just a true friendship. Another section of the exhibit lines up all the designers and models Blow championed through her career—McQueen, Treacy, Julien Macdonald, Jeremy Scott, Hussein Chalayan, Stella Tennant, Sophie Dahl—painting a picture of a woman who truly loved fashion and the people who worked in it. The gallery is topped off with videos of Blow from each designer’s show, speaking about what makes each unique. In the end you realize, yes, the clothes are fantastic, but the woman was, too.
“Isabella Blow: A Fashionable Life” is open at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum through August 28.
All exhibit photos courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences at the Powerhouse Museum (via vogue.com)