Posted by Richard Rawlinson (at his very best — Ed)
It was while writing about Medieval music here that my thoughts turned mechancholic about the loss of Isabella Blow, the fashionista who committed suicide a few years ago. A uniquely English eccentric, Issie loved the Middle Ages, and both her wedding and funeral were held with Gothic pomp at Gloucester Cathedral. This linking of the two, which seemed to spring out of nowhere, reiterated for me how we live with the dead in memory, how even seemingly random reminders can trigger thoughts about the past.
I first met her as Issie Broughton at a party in London in the late 1980s before she married the art dealer, Detmar Blow. I was an office junior at The Spectator and she was fashion editor at Tatler. Her wide-eyed stare and toothy grin made her charismatic rather than conventionally beautiful but it wasn’t just her idiosyncratic dress sense that attracted attention everywhere she went, it was her electric energy and aura.
Her machine gun-fire conversation peppered you with outrageous gossip one minute, and genuine kindness the next, before descending into deep gloominess, turning the potential diva into a vulnerable girl.
Within a few minutes of talking to her, you’d know she had an unreciprocated crush on the young and romantically-titled Thane of Cawdor (‘How couldn’t I fall for a descendant of Macbeth?’) and that her grandfather, Jock Delves Broughton, shot himself in Kenya’s ‘Happy Valley’ (‘Did you see White Mischief?’). You’d then learn of her frustrations about artistic restraints at work and the burden of debts accrued by financial extravagance (“Compromise just isn’t in my vocabulary, darling’). At the same time, she showed disconcerting enthusiasm for your every utterance, however trifling (‘If you’ve always wanted to visit Moscow, you must, must, MUST go without delay. Life’s too short to put things off’).
While remaining lovable and fascinating, Issie also had a habit of falling out with friends and employers. She’d hold grudges at slights, real or imagined. Her temperament, as high maintenance as her wardrobe, was, as we now know, due to severe bouts of depression and mental illness.
As she became well-known as the passionate style guru who discovered, nurtured and championed new creative talent from photographers and models to milliner Philip Treacy and designer Alexander McQueen, she felt her own aspirations were unfulfilled. She lived for the benefit of others but desperately needed help herself.
She was in fact celebrated and patiently indulged by many, including her husband, but the trouble with insanity is its capacity to alienate, to destroy perspective and, in the case of Issie, no amount of love, or giggles-inducing happy pills, could persuade her otherwise. Fag and glass of wine in hand, lipstick smudged and moth-eaten couture frock, mounting debts and bridges burned at glossy magazines, she was, in her warped view, an empty vessel, an ageing, worthless failure for whom death was the only solution.
It got worse with her seeming inability to find a home in the fashion world she influenced. Issie’s friend Daphne Guinness has said she became upset that Alexander McQueen didn’t take her along when he sold his brand to Gucci. ‘Once the deals started happening, she fell by the wayside,’ says Guinness. ‘Everybody else got contracts, and she got a free dress’. Then she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
She made several suicide attempts, including an overdose of sleeping pills, jumping from the Hammersmith Flyover and trying to drown herself in a lake. She was sectioned in psychiatric wards and given electroconvulsive therapy to no avail. In 2007, at a weekend party at her country house, she drank weedkiller, and died in Gloucestershire Royal Hospital the next day.
At the funeral at Gloucester Cathedral, husband Detmar has discussed how, while in grief, he was snubbed by a few members of the fashion crowd, ignorant of all the support he gave his wife.
One memory of the couple is when I asked Issie to help me research a clothing-related feature. She agreed to meet me for lunch. She chose an expensive restaurant, brought along her then new husband, and left me with the hefty bill as payment for her consultancy. They were charming and it was worth it. She also gave me a fat hardback, 1,000 Years of Fashion, with her name, Isabella Broughton, scribbled on the inside page, and a picture of a Medieval dandy on its spine. It remains on my bookshelf, every so often reminding me of a fabulous-yet-flawed woman, a dazzling light in an often drab world.