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The Sad Hatter

Isabella Blow, discoverer of Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy, wearer of the extravagant, darling of the beau monde, loved fashion more than life. But by the end, even fashion couldn’t save her.


Isabella Blow, 1995.  

There was no real use for the hundred or so sheep dotting the meadows around Hilles house, the kooky, gothic Arts and Crafts mansion in Gloucestershire where Isabella and Detmar Blow lived, but they looked fantastic—they were Soay sheep, small and black, with elaborate curlicue horns. Detmar objected to the waste they left, the upkeep they required, but his wife found them lovely, and inspirational. When her good friend, her discovery, her creative partner-in-crime Alexander McQueen had been installed at the House of Givenchy and had to produce an haute couture collection that would dazzle, that would épate, that would thrill, she knew just what to do with an ailing sheep whose time had come: “There was a sacrifice,” says the milliner Philip Treacy, another Blow discovery, raising his brows. A fashion sacrifice, the kind Blow knew best.

Weeks later, McQueen’s models were marching down the runway in Philip Treacy helmets adorned with fabulous, windy, dramatic horns cast from Blow’s poor, lost sheep.

It wasn’t always blood and guts at Hilles. The house was just one piece in Blow’s elaborately accessorized wardrobe of hats, helmets, and horny little pugs (“animated turds, really,” said a friend) known for humping everything in sight. And the parties she threw there nearly every weekend were as gala as she was: Everyone was expected to dress, everyone was expected to charm and to sing, somewhat, for their supper, prepared by a handsome French chef named Loïc.

Blow was not, by any conventional measure, a beautiful woman. She was jolie laide, perhaps, or striking, but never beautiful. She had a big and ugly mouth, bulging eyes, a weak chin. “It pains me to say so,” she once said, “but I’m ugly. I know that’s subjective, so perhaps I should say instead that I’m striking. My face is like a Plantagenet portrait.” But she dressed her way around it, in cinched waists and heels, cleavage, lipstick and a hat, even in the country, even on a Sunday, even in a cold and drenching English rain.

“Tracksuit bottoms for lunch, dinner, or in fact any time except for sport are completely unacceptable,” Blow might announce. Or “There’s no point clomping around like a duck in flat shoes,” or “I simply can’t look at you without lipstick,” or “I do just love breasts. They’re so old-fashioned.”

In order to meet Blow’s expectations, guests (the thin and pretty ones, anyway) were invited to raid her closet of McQueen, Alaïa, and Hussein Chalayan. “She was absolutely convinced that if everyone looked glamorous, they would have a better time,” says the writer Plum Sykes, whom Blow once dressed in a Rifat Ozbek mini-dress made entirely of fishnet for a country dinner. “I can’t quite believe I wore a completely see-through dress, but when you’re with Issie, you completely drink the Kool Aid.”

But in the past few years, the legendarily raucous weekends at Hilles had begun to take a darker turn. Blow was still telling her hilarious and filthy stories—about the irresistible bulge in the tight white trousers of the Venetian gondolier she’d had an affair with during a brief separation from Detmar, for example—but mostly she was talking about how horribly depressed she’d become.

“I want to die,” she would tell her friends, in what seemed, perhaps, like more elaborate hyperbole. How could she, they wondered, as they stood amid the splendid world she’d created for herself, full of beauty and friendship with the witty and the famous, most of whom, quite literally, worshipped at her feet, and her feet were always in Manolos, sometimes matching, sometimes not.

But still, she did. She desperately wanted to die. “She wouldn’t shut up about it!” remembers Hamish Bowles, the Vogue editor who’d spent many far happier hours at Hilles, giggling over Blow’s decision to wear a necklace that read BLOWJOB to a party at the Princess Michael of Kent’s, and a halbadier’s helmet for when barrister friends of Detmar’s had come for lunch. Like everyone else, he missed the days of chasing Blow through a meadow while the humid English winds inflated the multicolored bin liners that made up her coat.

Her friends were concerned, but they were also growing tired of her macabre side. “People say, ‘How are you?’ and you say, ‘Fabulous,’” says Treacy. “But not Isabella. She’d say, ‘I’m suicidal.’” As one put it, “Someone finally said, ‘Look, Issie, if you really mean to kill yourself, there’s a pool out back, go drown!’”

Isabella Blow’s desire to die was finally realized on May 7 of this year. The news came the morning of the Met’s Costume Institute Gala, and Anna Wintour, Blow’s former boss and great friend, spent the evening blinking back tears. Blow, after years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was, her family and friends conclude, the final straw. She drank a hefty dose of weed-killer and summoned her sisters Julia and Lavinia and Detmar to her bed. “She chastised me for never buying her a white pony,” Detmar says. “Issie said, ‘I used to be a little ray of sunshine,’ so I cried and said, ‘You always are, darling,’ and that was it.”


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