A trailblazer, fashion editor, and personality, “Issie” Blow had a keen eye for talent and a happy knack of being exactly herself.
An English rose with blue blood running through her veins, Issie’s life story is worthy of a blockbuster screenplay, with Lady Ga-Ga cast in the lead role.
This article will put the loss, mental illness, and (eventually successful) suicide attempts aside, and focus on the lessons to be learned from Issie’s sensational career.
LESSON ONE : BE ORIGINAL
Although a fashion writer and editor, Issie didn’t get caught in the seasonal trends. She was only interested in originality and dramatic expression.
Her eccentricity was first recorded when she was in secretarial school. Friends of the day recalled her wearing cocktail dresses to class, and she was known to flash more than a little leg. Underwear was optional.
Eccentricity escalated as the years went by. She was best known for wearing outrageous hats, often designed by Philip Treacy who considered her his Muse.
LESSON TWO: LEARN THE ROPES
In her youth, Issie had many odd jobs. She worked behind the counter in a scone shop for several years, and as a cleaner in London. Wanting to pursue a career in fashion, she eventually landed a position as a salesgirl at Medina, a boutique in Knightsbridge.
Issie’s first husband lured her to the USA. He was doing oil business in Texas. She moved to New York (1979).
It was not long before Issie was working as assistant for Andre Leon Talley, then Vogue’s editor-at-large.
In 1986, with New York confidence and a stack of experience under her belt, Isabella Blow returned to London and worked for fashion director Michael Roberts (Tatler and the Sunday Times Style magazine).
Issie was introduced to Anna Wintour, then creative director at Vogue, and soon after was offered a role as Anna’s assistant (1983)
Serious fashion industry cred and a wealth of experience, at age twenty-eight Issie’s opinion and style, was widely sought after.
LESSON THREE : DRAW FROM HISTORY
Isabella Blow was a key influencer of the British cultural renaissance of the 1990s. She was not afraid of infusing modern style with historic references.
It was deemed appropriate for her to launch a new look for the British aristocracy; because she was from it, she didn’t have to take it seriously.
Issie who proud of her heritage and could trace it back to the Battle of Poitiers, in 1356, where Edward, the Black Prince, routed the French army and captured King John of France.
“She had a medieval heart—bold, haughty. She had an earthy sense of humor and she loved to shock.”
– Orlando Fraser (cousin)
LESSON FOUR : GO ALL IN!
Once she was hooked on an idea, Issie’s enthusiasm knew few limits.
Undoubtedly her greatest claim to fame, she discovered and launched the career of designer Alexander McQueen.
It was 1992 and Issie attended Central Saint Martin’s College of the Arts presentation. On viewing the fashion student McQueen’s work, Issie responded with such enthusiasm that she bought every single item from his graduation collection. This instantly catapulted McQueen to fashion industry prominence.
Unlike other fashion icons who represented a designer from a safe distance, Issie immersed herself in her discoveries and their work.
She brought the milliner and hat designer Philip Treacy to public notice by wearing his creations at every photo opportunity.
“I’m a walking billboard. That’s my pleasure.”
LESSON FIVE : HUSTLE!
It could be said that Issie was always hustling to remain relevant in the ever-changing and fickle fashion industry. However, it was late in her career that real hustle and risk came to the fore.
Issie felt the “spirit” of the industry had been destroyed by the mighty dollar and she become despondent. A note should be made that her radical behaviour and increasing eccentricity had damaged her influence in the British isles. Nonetheless, Issie looked for opportunities abroad.
She began work on producing a series of books titled “Arabian Beauty,” focusing on fashion in the Middle East. The project was backed by Sheikh Majed al-Sabah, nephew of the Emir of Kuwait, who owns high-end clothing stores in Kuwait and Dubai.
India was also on Issie’s radar of opportunity. Accompanied by actor Rupert Everett (why wouldn’t you), she traveled to India on a project sponsored by ICI Dulux to select new colours and help promote the company’s textiles. On another occasion, she made a trip to Delhi to investigate handbag manufacturing options.
“One thing’s for sure. I won’t die of boredom.”
LESSON SIX : IT’S WHO YOU KNOW
Issie’s notoriety was not only forged by her talent, but by her continual appearance in the’s who’s-who columns of the time. She networked at all the glitzy functions and sought out, and attracted, the talented, rich, and famous.
In New York (1979) she shared a flat with Catherine Oxenberg, an American-born actress who was raised in London. Oxenberg was also blue-blooded, born eldest daughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. This choice of roommate no doubt aided Issie’s introduction to the New York in-crowd.
Issie entered the orbit of Andy Warhol, and it was said that she often lunched with him. Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat spent a lot of time in Issie’s office, and there were rumours of an intimate relationship.
Back in the UK and from the world of entertainment, Issie was long-time friend of Brian Ferry (musician) and Godmother to his son Otis. Michael McLaren (Godfather of Punk) and actor Rupert Everett were also frequent companions.
When Issie married Detmar Blow, they created a salon in his family mansion, and they were frequently visited by entertainers, writers, artists, intellectuals, and minor royalty.
LESSON SEVEN : MONETIZE
This learning is based on what Issie didn’t do.
With a special talent for finding new things and unique ways of looking at the existing, it was often difficult to define Issie’s role. “So you find a designer, or you find the model, but how do you invoice for that?” photographer Mario Testino said of Issie’s dilemma.
A lack of monetization certainly became the major point of contention between Issie and McQueen. In 1997 she was lunching with Tom Ford (Gucci) who mentioned imminent acquisitions to expand the Gucci group. Issie didn’t hesitate to suggest McQueen’s label.
Negotiations resulted in a multi-million-dollar price, and Issie accompanied McQueen on a now-legendary train ride to Paris to sign the documents. There was no mention of Issie in the contract, and no role for her in the new company. She was devastated.
Issie loved McQueen and eventually put aside her hurt. The two remained cautious friends, and McQueen picked up some of her private hospital bills in the year before her death.
This is just one example of how a lack of focus on monetization adversely affected Issie’s life.
Issie told Stella Tennant (model and now fashion designer), ‘If I make you famous, I want a bottle of my favourite perfume.’ A bottle of Fracas duly arrived.