Blow by Blow: the Story of Isabella Blow
Detmar Blow with Tom Sykes
HarperCollins, 304pp, £20
Thames & Hudson, 192pp, £29.95
As the fashion editor Isabella Blow - or Issie, as she was known - lay dying in Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, she was shocked by the nurses' ignorance. "Google me," she ordered them.
The following day her husband, Detmar Blow, returned to her bedside. His father had committed suicide 20 years earlier by drinking the same brand of weedkiller ingested by his wife. Knowing that these would be their final hours together, he wore his "Harris tweed jacket with an old Rhodesian flag on the back and an Umbro label on the front". Issie had taught him how to dress. Soon after they were engaged, she had taken him to Scott Crolla on Dover Street to order some "elegant trousers and Gothic ties". For suits, they went to a Ukrainian tailor in Fulham. A dozen cream shirts were purchased from Hilditch & Key; and for shoes, trips were made to Johnny Moke on the King's Road or Carnaby Street (brothel creepers). The mixture of Jermyn Street tailoring and punk defined Issie's style. A granddaughter of "Jock" Delves Broughton of White Mischief fame, she is best known for discovering the designer Alexander McQueen. In his gossipy biography of his "fashion icon" wife, Blow - assisted by the journalist Tom Sykes - positions her life within the demise of the English aristocracy.
Issie's father, Evelyn, was the 12th Baronet Broughton. His father blew the family fortune on gambling and bad business deals, so, to save money, Evelyn moved everyone out of the big house - Doddington Hall in Cheshire - and into the gardener's cottage. Nostalgia for a glamorous past was part of the imaginative territory mapped by Issie's love of fashion and, later, her bipolar disorder. The fantasy eclipsed reality.
Issie attended McQueen's 1992 MA graduation show at Central St Martin's and bought the entire collection, paying him in instalments. She had already taken the milliner Philip Treacy under her wing when he was a student, setting him up with a studio at her house in Belgravia and wearing his ostrich-feathered sculptures to run for the bus. The son of a taxi driver, McQueen once scrawled "I am a c*nt" inside the lining of a jacket made for Prince Charles on Savile Row, where he was an apprentice. He described Issie as a cross between "a Billingsgate fishwife and Lucrezia Borgia". Her bawdy humour was part of her eccentricity.
I encountered Issie at Vogue. Clattering along the corridors in her Manolo Blahniks, she had a Diana Vreeland-style theatrical grandeur. She didn't have an obvious job (I learned from her husband's book that she was a contributing editor), or a desk. She was moved from the corner of features to the fashion room, where you would occasionally catch sight of a baby-faced McQueen. Whenever a quotation from a leading designer was needed, Issie was summoned to get Karl (Lagerfeld) or John (Galliano) on the phone. She was extremely well connected.
The story that emerges from this book recalls those other upper-class girls, Sarah Ferguson and Diana Spencer, brought up in a world of privilege and bucolic splendour where fathers are distant, mothers cold and children traumatised. Beneath the gash of lipstick and the eye-popping cleavage was a girl haunted by her grandfather's suicide at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, the death of her baby brother (he drowned aged two while in her care) and her parents' divorce. Having lost his heir, her father lost interest in his three daughters. When it was time for her mother, Helen, to leave, she lined up the girls and shook their hands.
And so the blows kept coming. Issie's disinheritance (her stepmother got the estate) was followed by McQueen's failure to take her over to Paris when he became star designer at Givenchy. "She's doing my fucking head in," he complained on the Eurostar. The job interview had been secured by Issie.
Demoted from patron to muse, she struggled to pay her (jewellery) bills. It was when Detmar's claim to Hilles - the family estate in Gloucestershire, a 1920s Arts and Crafts house set amid a thousand acres - was threatened by Issie's inability to produce an heir (there were three failed IVF treatments) that her manic depression spun out of control. Here lies the heart of the tragedy: the story of a modern woman trapped by the conventions of primogeniture. Crushed by childlessness, afraid of losing her beloved Hilles, she asked people at smart London parties "to get her some heroin, some horse tranquillisers or a gun. Everybody declined."
Compiled from diary entries, Blow's book hurries towards its inevitable conclusion in a curiously detached tone. He comes across as a spoiled man whose passive role as an eldest son with a £1m overdraft robs him of ambition. He invites us to pity his excesses, family feuds and inability to hold on to a job.
What a relief, then, to escape into Martina Brink's book of photographs and words. The cover shows Issie in fishnet tights, black cape and highwayman's mask, "lunching with the al-Sabah family [the royal family of Kuwait] at a desert party". Brink, a former PA of Issie's, has put together an impressive collection of tributes from the fashion world, showing off Issie's Treacy hats and connections.
Friends have scrawled memory lists on Paris bistro napkins and hotel fax paper, among them the model Sophie Dahl, another protégée of hers ("Big laugh. Red lips"). Surprisingly personal is the four-page tribute from the editor of US Vogue, Anna Wintour. And my favourite is the Tatler shoot "Nipples in Naples". Issie, front right, is baring a breast.