The Sad Hatter

Isabella Blow, 1995.Photo: Snowdon

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.”

Isabella Blow as a child, left; Blow at a ball with Rupert Everett.Photo: Courtesy of Detmar Blow

Even in death, Blow was fabulous. “I think she was in thirties silver lamé in the hospital,” says Bowles, “even though it scratched. Self-presentation was always more important. Even at that point.”

Issie Blow was born Isabella Delves Broughton in 1958 and lived with her family in a small house on the grounds of her family’s estate called Doddington, in Cheshire. The main house had been let to a girls’ school when the gambling debts of her grandfather, Jock Delves Broughton, had bankrupted the family. (Sir Jock took off for Kenya, where he was later accused of murder and eventually killed himself.) Blow described her childhood home as “small, hideous, and pink,” but the Delves Broughtons were properly aristocratic: The impoverishment was a part of the whole, grand picture. Great eccentrics dotted the thin-blooded gene pool long before Blow came along. Her grandmother was most regularly described as a cannibal after once devouring a fantastic barbecue in Papua New Guinea only to be told it was human flesh, at which point, says Detmar, she demanded more. How delicious!

When Blow was 4 years old, her younger brother drowned in a half-full swimming pool while, as she later recalled, her mother was upstairs putting on lipstick and her father mixing some drinks. “The nanny was off on holiday,” Detmar explains, “and the little boy had been given Heinz Baked Beans for tea.” It was poor digestion, Detmar suggests, and the cold pool water that gave him the fatal shock.

Blow’s parents never recovered from the tragedy, and her mother eventually left when Blow was 14. “It was literally a handshake and then she was off,” says Detmar. “The stepmother came with three daughters and sort of said to Issie, ‘Okay, then. You’re out.’”

Issie Blow inhabited her Cinderella phase boldly. She moved to a London squat and did oddish jobs—like cleaning house with a kerchief knotted on her head. Once, on break, she ran into a cousin who confused Blow’s look for fashion. Which it was, of a sort, as most things were when interpreted by Blow.

In English society, if you are born posh, you are posh, even when you’re selling scones (which she would later do) or emptying someone else’s trash. Blow’s poverty never mattered socially in England and her status served her well even here in New York, where she moved in 1979 to study ancient Chinese art at Columbia. She roomed with Catherine Oxenberg (of Dynasty) and was quickly picked up by Andy Warhol, who was immediately drawn to her feet. She was wearing, at their first meeting, a mismatched pair of Manolo Blahniks. “Do you always buy two pairs?” Warhol wanted to know. When she had to, she explained. He was intrigued, and together they’d go to lunch, often with Jean-Michel Basquiat, with whom Isabella was proudly, fruitlessly in love.

In 1980, Blow moved to West Texas to work for the designer Guy Laroche, but she was back in New York a year later, looking for a job. Bryan Ferry, the lead singer of Roxy Music who was also a member of her English social set, encouraged her to interview with Anna Wintour, then the recently installed creative director of Vogue and in need of an assistant. On Wintour’s desk, there was a biography of Vita Sackville-West. “I’ve read that three times, and it always makes me cry,” she told Wintour.

“Issie,” Wintour responded with her signature sangfroid, “there’s nothing to cry about.”

But they were a match. “I loved coming to the office,” Wintour says, “because I never knew what to expect. One day she’d be a maharaja, the next day a punk, and then she’d turn up as a corporate secretary in a proper little suit and gloves.”

There were tutus, and also two-fingered typing, and sometimes there was Basquiat, who would sit beside his friend while she worked away the afternoon.

Blow stayed at Vogue several years, eventually assisting André Leon Talley. But ultimately, she knew she belonged back in England. “She’s really not the usual type you find in America,” Wintour says. She’s lovably mad enough to be the seventh Mitford sister; she’s Diana Cooper’s spiritual heir. She’s in the great tradition of English eccentrics, though it was always a descriptive she loathed. “Eccentrics eat goldfish,” Detmar explains of her distaste for the term. “Issie was never anything like that.”

Issie moved back to London in 1986 to work at Tatler magazine, and one gray day in 1988, she went to a wedding at the Salisbury Cathedral wearing an ostrich-feather hat and a tight Katherine Hamnett coat. Detmar Blow was there, too, wearing the pink coat his grandfather had once worn as ambassador from Sri Lanka. “I saw this girl come past me, and I said, ‘I love your hat,’” says Detmar, who is smooth-faced and talks all the time, with a tendency to giggle and to yelp at the end of his sentences. The child of a failed writer and a fashion model, he is blessed with what he calls “fabulous, part-Oriental genes.” His other grandfather was a society architect who designed Hilles, where both Nehru and Gandhi once stayed. “She said she liked my coat, eh! But that she wished she was wearing her violet shoes for me, eh! Then we went to the reception and talked about being the court jesters, being kicked to death ourselves with suffering, eh! I just loved her voice.”

The wedding of Isabella and Detmar Blow at Gloucester Cathedral, 1989.Photo: Courtesy of the Echo Newspaper, Cheltenham

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.”

Blow with Detmar at a party in 2005, left; with Alexander McQueen at the "Blow" lipstick launch party in 2005.Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images; Richard Young/Rex USA

“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.”

Things got darker still: A few years ago, Detmar’s mother realized how fabulous Hilles had become. Like all the guests, she was taken with the lapis-lazuli lamps topped with golden lampshades. She liked Loïc’s food, she liked that you never knew what you’d hear—Roxy Music, the Sex Pistols, Wagner. But unlike the other guests, Mrs. Blow Sr. had claim on the place, and she wanted it back. She decided that she’d be the mistress of Hilles, and also that it should be a home for exactly the future generations Detmar and Issie had failed to provide.

Blow had no claim even on the “hideous pink” house she’d grown up in, and she’d already seen her family exiled from their grand manse. It was something out of Trollope, this new battle, and it was also more than she could stand. “It was like the whole thing with her stepmother all over again,” Detmar says. “I just said, ‘Fuck it. My mother’s an Oriental death-pot, and I’m over it.’” Detmar was willing to fight his mother, he says, for Hilles. “But Issie said, ‘No, Detmar, I have to go.’”

“Can you imagine,” says Philip Treacy in a slow, practiced voice, swinging around in a Lucite Barbarella bubble chair at his London office, filling the room with cigarette smoke, “putting your heart and soul and life into a house and then thinking you might lose it? When you’ve already lost one home?” He shakes his head at the thought. “Here’s how it works here: People marry the eldest son, they believe they will inherit the house. And Issie brought that house to life. She breathed life into that house for fourteen years, and then to be told you couldn’t go there anymore?”

“Someone finally said, ‘Look, Issie, if you really mean to kill yourself, there’s a pool out back, go drown!’ ”

Blow packed up her hats, and her coats, and her endless pairs of shoes and retreated to London. Officially, the Blows continued to share a house there where, Detmar says, he’d leave Issie elaborate love notes begging her to ignore his mother, to come back to him, but she resisted. She often stayed with Treacy during this time, and Treacy believes that her resistance was mostly self-protective. “She said, ‘Samo,’ which is ‘same old shit,’ which is all that Basquiat ever said,” Detmar says. “It’s not the most original thing for her to have said, but that’s what she said. Samo. I finally said, ‘Okay, I’ll move out,’ and I rented a flat in Shoreditch, which is very fashionable.” He also had some affairs, most famously with Stephanie Theobald, a supposedly lesbian writer.

“I had a lot of loneliness,” he says, defending himself. “Issie was always working. I had to schedule time with her, so I always had these platonic crushes. Because I was married to Issie, I got much prettier dates than I ever could have on my own.”

Blow, for her part, retaliated with the gondolier and his bulging white pants, but in the end, she told her friends that he stole a lot of her money and wasn’t good for much else.

So she made her first attempt at death, with a desperate plunge off a bridge nicknamed Suicide Bridge in London. She survived, but shattered zillions of bones in her legs and in her feet. She was condemned to flat shoes and took, that season, a bye on the collections. Yet Detmar came to her side and she let him. His mother was on to other pursuits by then and they moved back to Hilles together.

But Issie would tell anyone who asked that she was morbidly depressed. She tried all sorts of therapy, even electric shock. Her friends sat and listened as much as they could stand. “The best thing you could do was listen,” says Wintour. “It didn’t make sense from the outside, but that’s the illness.”

“One day she was crying,” Detmar recalls, “and she took this crumpled-up tissue and showed it to me and said, ‘This is me. This is what I am.’ Rupert Everett was there, and he said, ‘No, Issie. That’s a handkerchief.’ And it was good of Rupert to say that, but it was never enough.”

Last Christmas, the fashion publicist Karla Otto convinced Blow to take a vacation with her to Goa. One afternoon, Blow drove her rental car to the beach, took a handful of sedatives, and set out for the sea, determined to die in the manner of Virginia Woolf. “But the beach is very wide in Goa,” Otto says. Blow passed out well before reaching the water and was rescued by a taxi driver who found her hotel name on a key in her pocket and returned her, unconscious, to Otto. “She said, ‘You don’t understand, Karla,’” Otto remembers, “‘because you like to live. I don’t. So let me go.’”

And on the 7th of May, after having taken a great, final swig of weed-killer and gone to the hospital, Blow left for good.

My style icon is anyone who makes a bloody effort,” Blow liked to say, so all the people who turned up to her Gloucestershire funeral followed her counsel: “I looked around,” says Plum Sykes, “and everyone looked like Issie.” There was lipstick, there was cleavage, and there were endless high heels aerating the damp grass. Treacy made 50 black hats, and Rupert Everett delivered the eulogy: “Have you gotten what you wanted, Issie?” he said. “Life was a relationship that you rejected.”

There’s another, more public memorial scheduled for September, when the multitudes of fashion nuts who admired Blow from afar will have a chance to pay tribute. Until then, Detmar and Treacy will continue working on a museum exhibition of Issie’s hats; they’re just back from installing it at the Hermitage, which they know Issie would have loved.

Treacy keeps calling his friend’s voice mail for a quick hit of her voice. Others cope differently: “McQueen said he’s been to a medium,” Detmar says. “He tells me that Issie’s okay, she’s with her grandmother, who was this fantastic cannibal, you know, so that’s nice.

“We’re doing a tombstone in Gloucestershire,” he adds. “I’m going to make it very Islamic, with Arabic and pomegranates. And maybe some hats.”

The Sad Hatter