One of the most exciting exhibitions on fashion I have ever seen has just opened. Better even than the Louboutin at the Design Museum, and those who know me know I love shoes; better too than its current Paul Smith exhibition.
It’s Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at Somerset House. Even more than the V&A’s current Club to Catwalk, it makes one proud to be a Londoner – it’s impossible to imagine the wild, daring, inventive but still utterly wearable designs of Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy, Isabella Blow’s most famous protégés, originating from any other city.
There are so many extraordinary outfits here, taken from Blow’s personal collection – she famously spotted McQueen at his Central Saint Martins graduation show, and bought the entire collection for £5,000. Most remarkable is a sailing ship fashioned as a black hat, its feather sails curling behind it as though permanently caught in the wind: this was inspired by Blow telling Treacy about the short-lived fashion for 18th century women to wear a ship in their vast wigs to commemorate a naval battle.
There are some lovely stories alongside the clothes. Sophie Dahl tells how she was crying by a parking meter when a regal apparition emerged from a taxi burdened with a gravity-defying hat and dozens of shopping bags. Dahl offered to help her, and Blow – for it was she – asked why she’d been crying.
“I’ve had an argument with my mother about what I’m going to do with my life,” said Dahl. “Would you like to be a model?” asked Blow. “Yes, please,” she said. Blow helped her become the most famous plus-sized model in the world.
I also love the description of how, when Blow became Fashion Editor for the new Sunday Times Style magazine, its editor would have her walk the long way through the office so that everyone in that uptight, tie-wearing office could see her. The Sunday Times’ overall editor was, apparently, too terrified to meet her.
It reminds me of being at the Times, when the transvestite, Turner Prize-winning potter Grayson Perry was a columnist for the Arts section. He would come to drinks parties dressed as his alter-ego, a little girl in a huge blue frock and hair bow called Claire.
There’s a dark side to the glitz and glamour. McQueen and Blow fell out when the former sold his label to Gucci, in a deal Blow had helped to broker, and she wasn’t rewarded. Both later committed suicide – Blow in 2007, McQueen in 2010.
I’ve followed the three for years. I own a fantastic pair of McQueen trousers, bought for a risible £30 at the Designer Warehouse Sale. From the same place, I own four Philip Treacy hats – a sensible black fedora, a blue in the same design, an Elvis hat and a Marilyn hat (see pics, below).
Back in 1997, when I edited Time Out, we were delighted to get Alexander McQueen for our London Fashion Week cover. The yellow liquid in which he and model Karen Ferrari were doused was intended by McQueen to represent a “golden shower”, but in the end the side of him that acted as head of respected fashion house Givenchy won over the punk side of him that once stitched “I am a c***” into the linings of Prince Charles’s jacket. At the last minute he begged us not to mention the golden shower idea, so our Fashion Editor, Lorna V, coyly referred to it in the cover interview as “a truly wicked portrait of his choice”.
As to Blow, we put her on the cover five months later, at the next London Fashion Week. To be honest, I had to be persuaded by Lorna V – Blow was, after all, not a designer or model but a stylist at another magazine – but I’m glad I was.
“She doesn’t seem to care,” wrote Lorna V, “that her dyed-red cropped fox-fur jacket by designer Tristan Webber is sweeping dust from the floor, that her silver lace dress by Alexander McQueen is twisted so tight it’s exposing her ample bosom, and that her neon-yellow Manolo Blahnik stilettos (worn with matching tights and knickers) are scratching the tiles.”
“I’m like an animal foraging for truffles, or an eagle looking for prey,” Blow told Lorna of her hunt for new talent. “I just can’t seem to stop. It’s in my blood.”
But working in fashion will inevitably warp your own sense of self. Blow admitted her obsession with hats started as a way to draw attention away from her face, saying: “I’m hideous. I won’t have mirrors in the house because I can’t bear to look at myself. I suppose that’s why my lipstick is never on evenly.”
Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! is on at Somerset House until March 2, 2014. Club to Catwalk is at the V&A until Feb 16, 2014. hello my Name Is Paul Smith is at the Design Museum until March 9, 2014. The next Designer Warehouse Sales are Dec 6-8 (women) and Dec 13-15 (men).