In 2007, the art and fashion world was shocked by the suicide of Isabella Blow. An iconic figure in her bright red lipstick, gravity-defying Philip Treacy hats, and armorial, avant garde ensembles, Isabella ended a life long battle with depression in the same way as her husband’s father, drinking poison. Detmar Blow, her partner for 18 years, pays tribute to his wife’s artistic vision and emotional struggles in a new book, Blow by Blow. Edited by Tom Sykes, husband of Issie’s fellow Voguette and once-assistant, Plum, the book moves at a fast clip through Issie’s tragic childhood, raucous youth, and veritable storming of the international fashion scene, but never shies away from the painful reality of the swinging pendulum of manic depression. Detmar describes the moments that shook Issie’s foundations, from the betrayal of close friend Alexander McQueen to the pain of her failure to have a child. “I wrote it as Issie would have wanted,” says Detmar Blow in his quick yet graceful British accent. “It’s a tribute to her, to the life we led together, the good and the dark. The creative and the sad, the highs and the lows.” We spoke with Detmar about his wife’s career, their dedication to the world of art and fashion, and the demons that eventually took Issie’s life.
SDTC: Why did you feel you needed to write this book?
Detmar Blow: I’d mourned her, and I was trying to hold it together, very much. Trying just to keep going. I needed to make sense of why Issie had done what she’d done. I knew Issie’s life from when I met her, just turning thirty. But the early part of her life I needed to research. She talked about it, but she said she wanted to draw a line upon it.
I discovered that the early life was much darker than I had realized. Her brother’s death, which she obviously told me about, I discovered from a school friend that she felt blamed. That was very upsetting. And then, when her parents get divorced. Most parents come and see their children at boarding school and tell them they’re getting divorced. Issie just got a letter. She kind of got cheated. And then with her first boyfriend, it was much darker then Issie let on. Moving on, when she’s trying to get her life together again, she goes off to Texas, and then she’s having an abortion. And she obviously wanted to have a baby, to stabilize her, all that was important to make sense of. And also, it was tribute to her extraordinary creative, inspiring person, with much love. When she died, Issie got obituaries right round the world, and I knew her better than anyone, I lived with her for over 18 years. When I was researching my life with Issie, it made me quiet angry, reliving the betrayals in the fashion world. When I was writing it down, it was cathartic. I got it out of my system, my anger or my joy. I feel now that Issie will be with me for the rest of my life. I’ve paid my tribute to her, and I can also move on. I’m kind of freed from my life with Issie. Both Issie and I, we have a lot of things in common. Neither of our mothers came to Issie’s funeral. Darkness. My father committed suicide, her grandfather committed suicide. It was very cathartic for me to be able to put that down.
Are there any favourite memories that didn’t make it into the book?
I wrote 130,000 words, and Tom Sykes edited it down to 73, 000, which Issie would like. I could have almost written 500,000 words. But I didn’t want that kind of book. It was quite clear that a lot of people who never met her think that they have an understanding of her. They see the creative side, the happy side, the positive side, which is completely understandable, but there’s a complex character, and it’s completely wrong to see her as one dimensional. A lot of sadness she carried, the sadness I lived with. You go out, and she would put her armor on, and people would see one side of her. Towards the end, she would talk quite openly about her sadnesses. Issie was a very charismatic, extremely amusing, person, but serious as well. She was more than fashion, she was a very well read woman, she took things very seriously. She had a great knowledge of art, so you have to put that in a context.
There’s an episode in the book where Issie is talking to the farm manager, wearing what he says looks like dustbin bags, they were more like parachutes, but the point is that she was talking agriculture, something not many people in fashion could talk about. She was a bit more complex then a girl who wore clothes and a hat.
One of my favourite episodes in the book is when a friend helps her win a contract with the Sunday Times, and she gives the friend 10 percent. Her moral code comes through very strongly.
Issie doesn’t forget her principles. She’s a very honourable person, and she didn’t get treated honourably. That’s why the rejection by McQueen was so shocking for her. You kind of expect people to treat you as you treat them, and Issie was a very great lady, with a moral integrity, too. Famously generous, tipping everybody. Sometimes it was almost like buying love too much.
In the book, you write about the inherent dichotomy of manic depression-the high periods of extreme creativity, and then the lows. How do you think that influenced Issie?
The fact that she had a terrible childhood pushed her on, to make something of herself. She was determined to make her parents proud. It was a lost cause, but she tried hard. She had a huge empathy for humanity. What interested me is that Issie also looked on the dark side of life. Not many people do, or choose to, for obvious reasons. I was writing the book, and I thought back to [McQueen] shows, and there were a lot of references to death, madness, rape, Rwanda. They very much lived in the world, but most people in that industry look at the superficial things, in many ways.
Issie’s childhood seems, above all things, incredibly British.
My foreign friends say that to me. I have a Swiss friend, he said ‘it’s such a British story, Detmar.’ That’s the way it was with the parents of her generation, from her background, that’s how they were raised. For Issie I think there was a sadder side, because there was her brother dying, her grandfather’s suicide, she had that feeling of being a poor relation. Her father had a lot of demons inside him which he probably never came to terms with. They carry on as though nothing has happened, that’s the British way. I did find when her parents get divorced, and she just gets that letter from her mother, I find that shocking. It’s the 70s, you’re not talking about the 30s. I find that horrible. Very sad.
Looking back on your life with Issie, what makes you most proud?
I’m most proud of all the artists we supported. I think that’s quite an achievement. The people we helped on their way, to achieve success. That’s something I’m extremely proud of. We were both a significant force to support creativity in art and fashion, and you’re talking about people from nothing. Issie taught that to me-to be brave about giving people a break if they have talent, and try to do what we can.
By Haley Cullingham