This autumn Somerset House, in partnership with the Isabella Blow Foundation and Central Saint Martins, present a major exhibition focusing on the life and wardrobe of one of British fashion’s most colourful influences.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! is curated by Alistair O’Neill with Shonagh Marshall and designed by award-winning architectural firm Carmody Groarke, with installations by celebrated set designer Shona Heath. It will display thematically the breadth of her collection, a life lived through clothes.

Following her untimely death in 2007, Blow’s clothes were set to be sold at Christie’s but her friend Daphne Guinness swooped in and purchased every piece. She provided access to the collection for this exhibition.

Daphne Guinness said:

“This exhibition is, to me, a bittersweet event. Isabella Blow made our world more vivid, trailing colour with every pace she took. It is a sorrier place for her absence. When I visited her beloved clothes in a storage room in South Kensington, it seemed quite clear the collection would be of immense value to a great many people. I do believe that in choosing to exhibit them we’ve done the right thing – and that it is what she would have wanted. I am doing this in memory of a dear friend, in the hope that her legacy may continue to aid and inspire generations of designers to come”.

Born into English aristocracy, Isabella Blow forged a career in fashion, first assisting Anna Wintour at US Vogue, going on to become fashion director of The Sunday Times Style and eventually Tatler.

She is known as an eccentric both in her attitude to life and in her unique style. But what was arguably most important about Isabella Blow was her ability to spot and nurture creative talent. She is credited with discovering Alexander McQueen, whose graduate collection she famously bought in its entirety; milliner Philip Treacy, whose hats would become an integral part of her look; Hussein Chalayan and Julien Macdonald, among many others. Their pieces dominated her wardrobe and feature heavily throughout the exhibition.

These iconic outfits feature in clusters at various stages throughout the exhibition and what’s especially endearing is the fact that each set of mannequins differs slightly in their design yet all bear a resemblance to Blow herself.

The overall design is impressive. Compared to the previous major fashion exhibition staged in the Embankment Galleries, Valentino: Master of Couture, the vastness of the space has been sectioned off, creating smaller areas, each addressing a different topic. It actually serves to make the exhibition feel bigger as each part is so packed with information.

There is a definite 90s aesthetic running throughout – everything is stripped back, with many of the videos being shown on TVs ( the big black kind not flat screens). Other sections were divided by strips of see-through plastic or lights. The aim presumably is to subtly convey the period when Blow and her disciples were arguably in their heyday.

As the exhibition progresses, more of Blow’s personality is conveyed through the staging. The section focusing on her working life features odd disembodied legs appearing out of the wall or the floor. As well as hats, shoes were a key part of her wardrobe and it is in this section that you can see close up the wear and tear. She was a woman who wore her clothes rather than preserving them.

Isabella dreamed of living in Doddington Hall, the house built by her family in Cheshire. But this was never to be and poignantly, halfway through the exhibition visitors come to a recreation of the Circular Saloon of Doddington Hall, housing a selection of her outfits. The display is accompanied by a recording of Isabella’s view of her wardrobe, made by fashion illustrator Dean Rhys Morgan in 2004 when he was employed as her assistant at Tatler. The caption on the wall reads: “She saw her clothing as armour, as a form of protection from the everyday – from the slings and arrows of daily life.”

The exhibition ends with footage of La Dame Bleue, the S/S 2008 Alexander McQueen collection that Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy collaborated on and dedicated to Isabella after her death.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! is another string to Somerset House’s fashion bow. The exhibition manages to convey fashion history, serving a very serious purpose in documenting and exploring the psychology of an iconic fashion figure’s wardrobe while also contextualising Isabella Blow’s effect on British fashion as a whole. At the same time there is a palpable poignancy conveyed and a conscious effort to display her as she was, not just as the public perceived her. You leave with a sense of sadness at her absence but also infused with the joy and excitement that she had for her work and friends. It is an exhibition meant to provoke reflection but also to inspire.

Isabella blow: Fashion Galore! is on from 20 November 2013 – 2 March 2014. Find out more about the exhibition on the Somerset House website.

Fashion / Art & Culture