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The Sad Hatter

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Blow with Detmar at a party in 2005, left; with Alexander McQueen at the "Blow" lipstick launch party in 2005.  

“With anyone else who looked like that—and there are a number of people around fashion who do look very odd—you would say that’s a pose. It’s fancy dress. But with Issie it never was,” says Gill. “The way she looked was an absolute evocation of who she was. She dressed as honestly and by her own lights as a banker going out in a suit. There is something about eccentricity that is forced, that’s a hobby. There was nothing forced about Issie.”

Still, “Isabella was racked with self-doubt on some very acute personal levels. Clothing had an armorial property for her. It was a defense, a barrier,” says Hamish Bowles.

“I don’t think Issie liked getting dressed in the morning,” says Gill. “I think she found it quite painful. She always had the sort of self-knowledge you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Most of us gloss over our lives. She had a fierce honesty about herself, and that was very, very difficult to live with.”

Blow’s father was immune to her talent, and to her success. He considered Tatler a magazine “for drug dealers,” Blow told her friends. So she wasn’t expecting much by the time he died, in 1993, but he’d recovered a bit financially from his father’s bankruptcy, and the slap of just £5,000 took its toll.

She had also become bitter about the success of her many protégés, McQueen in particular. (McQueen has not spoken publicly about his friend’s death and declined to comment for this story.) After the days spent sewing away in Blow’s garden flat, his career took off and he was hired as the head of Givenchy in Paris. It was a huge, high-profile job with an enormous LVMH paycheck. Often, designers take their muses with them in an official capacity: There are any number of positions for someone devoted and creative enough to use her own dead sheep for your first big show. But McQueen never found an official paying spot for Blow, not at LVMH, and not later, when his own line was bought by the Gucci Group at the suggestion of Tom Ford. “He’s become a multimillionaire,” she once said of McQueen. “He’s got it all stashed away. His nest is all piled up with stuff. Everything is money. And he always says that’s all I ever think about, and that’s unfair. I said to Tom Ford, ‘Buy McQueen.’ It was totally me. And McQueen was like snorting and huffing away, and I said, ‘Get out of fucking bed and ring him up! He fancies you.’

“As my therapist says, the umbilical cord has a price tag on it.”

“I think sometimes, it’s important for designers to go off on their own,” Wintour says, in defense of McQueen. “It’s important for them to establish themselves as an individual.” But Blow was terribly sensitive when it came to money. “She had a childlike perception of money,” Treacy says. “If she had it, she spent it.” And always, it was on something beautiful: pale-green Regency glass, black orchids, and clothes, clothes, clothes. “I think because she oozed extravagance, people forgot she needed to be paid,” he adds.

“I always thought she should’ve started an agency,” says Jeremy Langmead, who is now the editor of British Esquire but once happily shocked the stuffy staff of the London Times by hiring Blow. “She functioned as an agency; she just didn’t get paid.”

And so began Issie’s terrible fear of winding up broke and alone. True, she was married and there was money in Detmar’s family, but he was more land- than cash-rich, as is the case with so much of the English aristocracy. And, yes, Blow was often earning a perfectly adequate living: She worked fairly consistently as a fashion editor—at the Times, and later at Tatler, and there were consultancies for brands like Swarovski. Many people live on less, but, then, not many people consider black orchids, Regency glass, and that adorable French chef life’s barest necessities.

“She would say, ‘I’m going to be a bag lady, I just know it,’” says Treacy. “She talked about the Marchesa Casati, who lived on a park bench and every time she got money, she spent it on gardenias.”

Blow was also frustrated by her failure to have a child. “She would say ‘I’m so unhappy, I’m so unhappy,’” says Sykes, “and I’d say, ‘But what about Detmar? What about this fabulous thousand-acre estate? What about your gorgeous flat in town?’ And she’d say, ‘But Plum, I haven’t got a child.’”

The Blows had tried, by Issie’s estimation, eight times. There were fertility drugs and treatments and several attempts at IVF. “We went to the doctor, and there was nothing wrong with me, there was nothing wrong with her,” Detmar says. “Amanda Harlech [a current Chanel muse] says we are two exotic plants who cannot reproduce. Issie cared very much, but it didn’t matter to me because I had her.”


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