Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!

Isabella BlowFor my birthday this year, I decided to treat myself to a day off work and, as it was a Monday, it seemed like the perfect time to visit Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at Somerset House because that’s the day tickets are half price. It was the first time I had ever been to the Embankment Galleries at Somerset House, so it’s worth pointing out that the entrance to the exhibition is from Victoria Embankment, not The Strand. Might have saved me a bit of a walk if I’d known! Once inside, the exhibition starts with a small bit of family history and then some work from the MA shows of designers Isabella Blow championed, like Julien Macdonald, Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy. I already knew that Blow bought McQueen’s entire MA collection, but what I didn’t know was that she couldn’t afford it. She sent him 100 a month and received garments in the post! Aside from a dress that Chalayan had buried with iron filings, which was displayed in a glass case like an antique, all the here garments were displayed on old dress forms, like those used in fashion colleges. Treacy’s hats were displayed on spikes.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at Somerset HouseIn the next room, garments from the Autumn/Winter 1996/97 “Dante” collection by Alexander McQueen were on display. The heavily embellished clothing from this McQueen collection, famously inspired by Isabella Blow, was displayed on white plaster mannequins with limbs missing. For example, where a jacket had tails only on one side, the mannequin only had one leg. This resulted in a small boy near me asking his mother if one of the jackets had been designed for a person with no legs! There were also reproductions of pages from The Face magazine, showing items from this collection, plus some video footage of the catwalk show. Most of the garments up to this point had been on open display so, when the little boy and his sister were puzzled by the image in The Face not matching the Mr Pearl corset that they saw, I explained that you could see the lacing if you ducked round the back. Needless to say, I took a very close look at that particular piece.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at Somerset HouseThen I entered a brightly lit white room with stylised heads on tall poles displaying pieces from Treacy’s Autumn/Winter 1996/97 collection, which was originally styled by Blow and appeared to be even more sculptural in this setting. The open display meant that you could take a very close look at these remarkable hats – albeit on tiptoes in my case! The next section had a room filled with quirky display boxes on legs – to show ephemera relating to Isabella Blow, and some of her shoes – plus video footage of Blow and plenty of interesting anecdotes about her. An encounter with artist Simon Periton led her to invite him to design hats with Treacy. The text informed me that, in 1998, “Penton made Blow, as a gift, penis shaped confetti which she tossed onto the floor at fashion shoots as a mood enhancer.” Clearly she wasn’t just eccentric in her choice of hats. Apparently she preferred to write in pink ink and had a penchant for wearing odd (un-matching) shoes, which got her noticed by Andy Warhol in the 1980s. There were business cards from her time at Tatler and Vogue, plus faxes sent while planning photoshoots at the Sunday Times Style magazine. Commenting about her time there, then editor Jeremy Langmead said: “She always wore what she was about to photograph. She’d walk through The Sunday Times office with giant Jeremy Scott fur shoulder pads with antlers, and then happily sit in the canteen with the News International printers and have roast beef and roast potatoes.” The wear and tear on her wardrobe is noted and has been preserved as a record of her irreverent way of getting dressed.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at Somerset HouseThe next room was large and lists influences on her shoots via a selection of themed displays. There was a section on armour, one was maritime, another was based on formal gardens. There are a few items here displayed behind glass. The lobster hat by Erik Halley and the ship hat by Philip Treacy were part of a dramatic nautical display, only spoiled for me by the ‘water line’ which made it tricky for someone of my height to properly view the ship. Although I completely understand why, I was slightly disappointed that Treacy’s gothic castle hat from 1999 was also behind glass. Nevertheless, I spent a lot of time looking at the gorgeous details. The clothing in this section featured lots of McQueen again – plus Viktor & Rolf, Jeremy Scott, Comme des Garons and plenty of shoes by Manolo Blahnik – on mannequins covered in sheer black nylon with lips painted on. The section reminiscent of a formal garden featured the illuminated sculpture “Excessive Sensual Indulgence” by Tim Noble and Sue Webster. We are told that Blow had bought it for a Sunday Times Style photoshoot with David LaChapelle and then it sat in her living room. The section styled like a stately home had mannequins painted to look like stone. In this part of the exhibition, there is also a room of large Steven Meisel monochrome prints of some of the models that Blow discovered and championed. The whole thing is utterly engrossing.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at Somerset HouseThe exhibition ends with a section dedicated to McQueen Spring/Summer 2008 collection “La Dame Bleue” which featured hats by Treacy and was a tribute by the pair to Isabella Blow after her death in 2007. The clear plastic mannequins had painted masks and wore a selection of intricate leather and feathered items from the collection (see left). Beyond this was a room where a video of the catwalk show, with its neon winged entrance, was shown in full. Jon Gosling‘s soundtrack really enhances the overall beauty of this collection and the video footage proves a perfect end to the exhibition. As many people have said to me, Somerset House could have done very little with the objects they had and it still would have wowed the crowds. However, they pulled out all the stops with a stunning exhibition which invites you to explore the unusual space in order to discover more about one of fashion’s greatest muses.

Images via the Somerset House website and de zeen magazine.

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