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The Sad Hatter

The wedding of Isabella and Detmar Blow at Gloucester Cathedral, 1989.  

For Detmar, it was love at first sight. He followed her around the reception and eventually called to ask her to dinner. “She said, ‘I’m already booked,’ and I said, ‘Please come, Issie.’ She had Vanessa Redgrave staying at the house rehearsing Orpheus Descending. I could hear it over the phone, and it was very boring, so she said, ‘Oh, fine, I’ll come.’ She came in a Pam Hogg look—very sexy. I was 24! My siblings were horrified. But I knew. I had instinct. I had this girlfriend there who was looking daggers at Issie, by the way. When Issie went upstairs to make a call, I went after her and jumped on her. I wanted to show her where my interests lay. She said, ‘Get off me, you silly Sri Lanki.’

“But it was very, very nice. It was more than sex.”

Sixteen days later, they were engaged. Or, as Detmar says, “So the coat met the hat and they fell in love.”


The role Blow played in the fashion industry was often hard to describe. Her formal employment was, mostly, as a fashion editor and brand consultant. Her unofficial role, however, she described as “truffle swine.” (Though “muse” works, too.) Her eye for talent was remarkable. First came Philip Treacy, in 1989, when he was still a student and turned up at Tatler carrying a green crocodile hat. Issie was instantly smitten, called the Royal College of Art, where Treacy was studying, and said she was getting married and could he make her a hat, or not so much a hat but a helmet. Treacy did: a gold-lace headdress over a flesh-colored wimple. She wore it with a purple velvet dress covered in hand-embroidered, trompe l’oeil necklaces. The effect was dark medieval, dramatic. They were all thrilled. Blow called Treacy from her honeymoon and said, “Why don’t you come live in my house and make hats?” And so he did.

Three years later, Blow went to St. Martin’s fashion college to watch the graduating seniors’ projects, and fell so hard for the work of Alexander McQueen that she called him up and said, “I know this sounds weird, but I’d like to buy the whole thing.” Which she did, in installments. She also got on the phone with every fashion contact she’d ever made and raved about him. As time went on, Treacy would become very successful: Ascot, Henley, every posh wedding a Treacy fashion parade. He does hats for every runway show that has hats, and his office is now a small factory by Battersea Park. And when he moved out, McQueen moved in. Blow was devoted to, absolutely devoted to, McQueen, and vice versa. She continued to beg her connected fashion friends to come see, to support, to photograph, to wear. His talent was evident, and his star rose quite quickly.

And then there were the models Blow had such an aptitude for spotting: She found Sophie Dahl sobbing on a Kensington street corner and thought her beautiful. “We all just thought she was a fat teenager,” says Plum Sykes.

“No one,” says Wintour, “had an eye like Issie. The more corporate of us look at everything differently than someone like Issie, so whenever I got that phone call that Issie said I should see something, I would go.”

“People think that fashion is all frivolity and done by people who can’t do proper jobs,” says the writer Adrian Gill, “but Issie understood that it is very, very serious business in terms of civilization and culture. It’s the one piece of culture that every single person in the world participates in. Not everybody reads poetry or listens to music, but every single person in the world gets up in the morning and puts on something, and whether you like it or not, that’s a statement about who you are.”

Blow’s own statement was complicated. It spoke of a love for extreme beauty and detail, and of history, and a rare sensitivity to proportion and silhouette. But it’s no accident that so many favorite outfits included hats that obscured huge parts of her face. So many of her clothes were so extreme that they actually drew attention away from her and toward a marvelous shoe, or a trim little waistline, or the bust of which she was infinitely proud. “I don’t use a hat as a prop,” she said once. “I use it as a part of me. If I am feeling really low, I go and see Philip, cover my face, and feel fantastic. Although, if I’m on a real low, it requires going to the doctor for a prescription.”