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She who wore too much hat

Cathy Horyn pays tribute to Isabella Blow, the most outlandish dresser of all time.

fashion and trends Updated: May 14, 2007 19:47 IST

The English eccentric and sorcerer of talent, Isabella Blow, who died last week, was a completely implausible figure. You could not explain her and you could not reason with her.

She was incredibly bright on the subject of fashion and rarefied tastes, a fact that she wore on her sleeve and on her head. She loved a bustle, a corseted waist and a spectacular hat. And not for her the mushy-pea variety, the Ascot bonnet.

Her hats were trophies of her wit and imagination: a veiled set of antlers, a jewel-encrusted lobster, a sailing ship, a pheasant.

Her more exotic choices of headgear could be attributed to her paternal grandmother, Lady Vera Delves Broughton, an explorer and hunter, who claimed to have supped on a tribesman in Papua New Guinea. “She wasn’t strictly a cannibal,” her granddaughter pointed out.

But try to remind Izzy as she was , called, during one of her periodic financial crises that even aristocratic eccentrics had to occasionally go out and earn a living, and she would laugh her deep honking laugh and say “Oh, honey , ...”

Although Izzy worked regularly as a fashion editor, at different times for British Vogue, The Sunday Times and Tatler, and intermittently as a consultant to companies like Swarovski, she had, in a sense, no clear role. And that was a problem for her.

“Nobody knew how to quantify her talent,” said her friend Daphne Guinness, whose greatgrandfather knew Blow’s grandmother.

She was definitely the catalyst to the designer Alexander McQueen and the milliner Philip Treacy, her all-consuming belief in their talent was like that of a patron.

Though, as Guinness said, “People took it for granted that because she came from a certain type of background she had money. She didn’t have that kind of support, though she could spend her last penny helping someone.” Michael Roberts, the fashion director of Vanity Fair, took on Blow as his assistant at Tatler in the mid-1980s and remained close to her.

Recalling her discovery of McQueen, in the early ’90s, Roberts said, “She rang me up and said, ‘You’ve got to see this guy’s cloth ing.’

Then she dragged me off to a smelly basement in Piccadilly But . she was absolutely right.” In appearance and expectations she belonged very much, one felt, to a different time.

“She was the most interesting person I ever met,” Treacy said this week in Guardian.

Though English newspapers and magazines typically have small budgets, Blow invariably stayed at the most expensive hotels.

“She went over-budget because she didn’t have any conception of budget,” said Jonathan Newhouse, who oversees the Condé Nast magazines in Europe and Asia.

As Guinness said, “She travelled with numerous pieces of luggage, including hatboxes.

Recalling a trip they made together to Kuwait for a photo shoot, Guinness said, “We were in Terminal 4 at Heathrow.

“I’m not someone who fades into the background, but Izzy looked like a highwayman.” She had on a cape and tricorn.

Although Blow was an exceptionally cultivated woman, at ease with a baroness or a shopgirl, she advanced toward things with a kind of willful cluelessness.

In Kuwait, oblivious to Islamic laws, she put models in bikinis. “Suddenly people came out of nowhere with guns at us,” Guinness said, “She was so nonplussed.”

It was difficult for Blow to find a home in a world she influenced. “She functioned outside the corporate world,” Guinness said, “Everybody else got contracts, and she got a free dress.”

“It may be that she didn’t know how to ask for a position, Guinness added, “Getting that kind of acknowledgment would have given her esteem. She poured all of that esteem into other people, but had none of her own.”

First Published: May 14, 2007 19:16 IST