Inside the archive: The Isabella Blow Collection
“My father was a typical deprived aristocrat” – Isabella Blow on her obsession with beauty in the Hilary Knight footage, 1995
The term ‘Isabella Blow’ is almost synonymous with fashion but with her name comes the assumption that you know who she is. Fortunately for the assistant curator of Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! Shonagh Marshall, she didn’t know much as she experience the great influencer through her iconic archive.
Before attending the exhibition, I choose to sit through a panel discussion between the curator, conservationist and critic who brought the archive to life. With the entire collection due to be auctioned by Christie’s, Isabella’s dear friend Daphne Guinness decided to purchase the collection in its entirety in order for it to stay together (and thank goodness she did!). Enlisting the help of London College of Fashion alumni, Shonagh Marshall, Guinness set the task for Marshall to archive the collection which in turn revealed an lexical connection between the clothes and the events.
Traditionally, museums don’t display objects in a bad condition but the wear and tear infested in the archive tell a landfill of stories. A train stained with red wine or a Louis Vuttion fur coat with tomato sauce in the collar demonstrate Central Saint Martin’s Caroline Edwards’ point of the rigor, discipline and labour that comes with wearing fashion. What’s more, the scuffs and worn heels featured throughout the show bring the narrative to life as Isabella wore her clothes and she wore them hard. Tales of her watching a David Attenbourgh documentary about birds in a leather cape to talking to farmers on tractors trudging through the mud in Monolo Blanik’s move from absolutely ludicrous to tangible.
“As a curator, you become profoundly worried about narrating a story or creating a fiction which is what you do as a curator, history is selective” – Shonagh Marshall
From a curatorial perspective, Marshall spoke of a worry of the public not wanting to see the damage but in this case it’s the complete opposite. Literature on Isabella details her idiosyncratic approach to life so when piecing the exhibition Philip Tracey subconsciously warned against too much conservation particularly within her shoes as her shoes were always scuffed. The abrasion of her pieces highlights the incredible artless with the way she wore her clothes which ironically featured plenty of artistry. Thus choosing to never own a hoodie or a pair of tracksuit bottoms in favour of wine stained train manifests this ‘English eccentricity’. A lack of respect which Daphne Guniness too embodies is bound up in the wrinkles of a Galliano sleeve.
At one stage, I considered Isabella a fashion collector but the exhibition details how she used her wardrobe to inform both her identity and social interactions. Rarely was Isabella not friends with the designer she wore yet their pieces allowed to perform the creation of her own myth. Through time and betrayal her clothes became more abrasive, resonating that of armor but it is this materialised memory that asserts how she became tired of the performance of herself. Never having an off button, the only way to stop the act was to end her life.
“The smell of cigarettes in the clothes felt like the woman was coming through the clothes” – Shonagh Marshall
Upon announcement of Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! I became slightly skeptical about whether it would be another blockbuster exhibition simply showing clothes and very little substance in a similar way the V&A’s Bowie moment; however what I gained from my afternoon was an experience. Upon entering the dark space you are greeted by the news of Isabella’s arrival from a press clipping from the Evening Standard showing mother and baby. Snap shots of her happier years at Heathcliff along with Lady Vera Delves Broughton’s (Isabella’s Grandmother) images from an excursion to Papua New Guinea offer the perfect foregrounding of her aristocratic roots she so anarchically embraced.
Weaving through the sea of half-term visitors you come across an example of a budget blowing editorial feature she styled during her tenure at The Sunday Times. ‘Augusta with a duster’ photographed by David LaChappelle features the irony, chaos and pastiche that both creative forces are known for but what made this reference so important was Cecil Beaton’s 1941 image for British Vogue’s feature ‘Why women read Vogue’. From the two editorials you can clearly see Isabella and LaChappelle embracing Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy of the simulacrum whilst making their own history through blowing budgets! Yet this wasn’t the only point of interest as the taxidermy of Noble and Webster offered an unexpected alternative to editorials and garments. Crows, rats, moss, lipstick and a Monolo Blanik heel selected by Isabella stands on a plinth projected on a board to effortlessly create a silhouette of Isabella’s head.
“The clothes were ruined due to the fragility of them but it became very clear that they were made for one person” – Shonagh Marshall on Nick Knight’s Fashion Galore video shoot
Videos of Hussein Chaylan’s BA collection and Alexander McQueen’s critically acclaimed MA collection not only humanise the pieces on display but also remind us of the brass and sass of the 90s models which today’s ‘Supe’s’ have exchanged for celebrity status. In reference to the garments on display, Textile Conservator Liz Rose’s points of the consequences of poor storage became more apparent with close inspection. Moths who munched away at surfaces made their presence known, particularly in the lace and silk pieces.
However with video being labelled the future it seemed only fitting to close the exhibition with Nick Knight’s 2013 depciption of today’s models exploring Donnington Hall in Isabella’s iconic clothes. By the time I got to the video I was exhausted but that was soon overtaken by a sudden rift of overwhelming sadness. It is the end. The end of the exhibition but also Isabella’s final accolade. She finally received the acknowledgment she longed for in former life and this is her final bow.