There's an air of melancholy and wonder at Hudson's Bay in Toronto, where items from the flamboyant wardrobe of the late British fashion icon Isabella Blow have been put on display for Fashion Blows, an exhibit at The Room. Blow was famous for her outrageous personal style and staunch support of young design talent. A style editor at Tatler magazine, she discovered the late, great Alexander McQueen when he was a student at Central Saint Martins, buying up his entire graduation collection. She also commissioned numerous hats from Irish-born milliner Philip Treacy – who now designs for everyone from Lady Gaga and Madonna to members of the Royal Family – when he was still a student at the Royal College of Art. Despite Blow's unparalleled creative zest and unbridled love of fashion, she met a tragic end, taking her own life in 2007 after years of struggling with depression.
Upon Blow's death, her best friend, British fashionista Daphne Guinness, bought Blow's entire personal wardrobe (it was exhibited last year at London's Somerset House to wide acclaim) and launched the Isabella Blow Foundation to help nurture young fashion talent. Guinness and Treacy were in Toronto this week to host a gala fundraiser for the foundation. Before his arrival in Canada, I spoke with Treacy over the phone from his London studio to reminisce about his close friend and mentor.
I think anyone who loves fashion loved Isabella and certainly misses her. How have you come to terms with losing her?
Well, that's a big question, Jeanne. You never really come to terms with losing anybody in such circumstances, especially somebody who's part of your creative life and emotional life. She leaves a big void. She'd be very happy that she's irreplaceable. And I think she'd be happy that people are as interested in her as they are. She's become the superstar she never thought she would be.
How ironic is that?
The Isabella I knew would have been so entertained and laughed so hard and for so long at the idea of being referred to as an icon. She'd have loved that. That would have kept her alive if she had known.
What do you think her biggest contribution was?
Well, she was somebody who had a heart. Her contribution artistically is enormous because she was very encouraging of young creative people. She kept young talent in pocket money sometimes. Isabella will always be remembered as an original. And there are very few original people in that creative world.
How would you say her personal style evolved, even over the course of the time that you knew her?
It changed dramatically at certain points. Isabella would sometimes be surprised when people who didn't really know her thought what she was wearing was chic. Isabella may have looked unusual but she wasn't trying to look unusual. I was just saying to Gaga that Isabella would have hated the idea of being regarded as eccentric. She thought that "eccentric" was a putdown.
I recall talking to Isabella one day after McQueen showed his first collection for Givenchy. She bemoaned the fact that the art had been sucked out of fashion and that commerce was taking a toll on the fashion world.
Well, she told the truth, don't you think?
Yeah, I do.
Would you agree with her?
I would totally agree with that.
Isabella was devastated about the idea about having to go and see some designer's sock collection at 9 o'clock on a Wednesday morning. She just thought that was the most heartbreaking thing to do, but she was a fashion director, so she had to go.
If the business has become that mundane, I find it curious that the Isabella Blow Foundation is all about encouraging young people to go into this industry. Will they really be prepared for it? You study your brains out and work so hard and then you go into this world that doesn't really appreciate great artistry.
Well, it's just that you don't want to hear that when you're starting out, because you're so idealistic. It's a dream. It's your perception of what fashion is. But it can really get beaten out of you.
What advice do you think Isabella would give to an aspiring designer today?
Isabella believed in originality and craftsmanship. One of the only routes for young people is to have an original perspective on what fashion can look like. It's not the only route. Very few people get to do that. But as a designer, there are millions of jackets and pairs of black, long slinky pants. You need to invent your own kind of special.
There's no question there's so much sameness out there. That's dizzying in itself. We're just all searching for some excitement, for a little shock value perhaps. And it rarely comes.
There is a lot of fashion now. You remember when there were fewer designers. Now everybody is a designer!
What do you glean from the magnificent pieces from Isabella's wardrobe that have gone on display? You probably knew each of these garments intimately because you hung out with her so much.
Yes. Because Isabella didn't buy something and then wear it once. She wore it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and then sometimes she slept in it, too! So they're not really clothes; they're almost relics – battle relics. She lived her life in fashion through these clothes. Someone would look at the Givenchy by Alexander Mc– Queen kimono and think she must have worn that to some very posh event, but Isabella potentially wore it on the tube to work! And that's really what made her special – she thought clothes were to be enjoyed by the wearer and by the viewer. And they were: I never saw Isabella get a bad reaction, even in the most unusual situations. People would say, "I like your hat." They never would say, "What the hell is that?!" People had a sense of humour.
She wore things with such aplomb. Not everyone has that innate sense of courage and confidence.
She wore those things like they were a navy blazer. It was just, "This is my outfit. This is what I wear today." When you admire beautifully made things on women, they don't always take the complement. Sometimes you could say, "I love your outfit!" And they say, "Oh, really? Do you like it?" Isabella would say, "Yes, isn't it amazing?!"
It was almost a childlike view.
She thought the point of fashion was to entertain us and entertain her and to make you feel good. Is that not the point?
Indeed. Well, you certainly remain true to that with the way you design. I always take such delight in all your creations.
Thank you. Isabella was fantastic for young creative people at the time because she totally on your side. When I made my ship hat, she said everybody was going to want one. And I thought nobody was going to want it. But basically, I could have sold hundreds of ship hats. I sell hats but really what I sell is dreams.
Do you hold any great hope for the fashion industry and for young designers? Are you optimistic about the future?
Of course – and you have to be optimistic. Look, one of the greatest designers that England has ever known was the son of taxi driver [McQueen]. You cannot stop talent. Talent can come from anywhere. If you've got talent, it will happen. And so, now, Alexander is an international icon. I remember a moment when Isabella was his only champion.
I remember that well. And what is your hope for the Isabella Blow Foundation?
I'd like Isabella to be remembered as the extraordinary person that she was and for people to enjoy her clothes and to enjoy her and see that there are lots of different types of people in the world. These unique people, in retrospect, were icons. But there was a moment when people thought Isabella was kooky. You remember that, don't you?
I remember it. But what pains me the most is remembering how bad she felt when she felt she wasn't appreciated. It would have been wonderful for her to know how much she is now loved.
It would have cheered her up knowing.
This interview has been condensed and edited.