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My favourite piece in the Isabella Blow collection at Somerset House is an Alexander McQueen black frock coat with gold frogging and a side train, made for Lee’s autumn/winter 1996 show, Dante. It’s one of the only pieces of Isabella’s that I’ve been able to wear; I still find it difficult going through her things. I wore it on the night of the Isabella Blow Foundation auction fundraiser at Christie’s in 2012. It seemed fitting.
Isabella first saw the coat in McQueen’s show at a church in Spitalfields, where he exhibited the collection. His reputation had grown considerably by then, and this was reflected in the press interest, but money was still tight. Dante was inspired by the Divine Comedy, and, true to form, Lee’s means of displaying his clothes was as theatrical as the pieces they revealed. The show opened with organ music filling the church, which was quickly drowned out by gunfire. Models walked the runway wearing crucifix masks, denim splashed with bleach and an array of lace. McQueen commented that the collection was ‘not so much about death but the awareness that it’s there’.
McQueen’s shows – for really, they will not be remembered as catwalks – were organic; exploding vitality on to fashion’s stage. As would become one of his signature devices, the models incorporated dance in their movement. Isabella, always avant-garde, encouraged this. Some kind soul thought to capture the show on film and later posted it on YouTube. If you take the time to watch it, you will notice her unmistakably in the front row – animated, cheering and clapping the loudest. I like to think her reward was the military coat.
Years later, after Isabella and Lee’s deaths, I bought Issie’s collection and agreed to loan the military coat to New York’s Metropolitan Museum for McQueen’s retrospective exhibition. As I wandered around Savage Beauty, I was reminded so much of Dante, peppered as it had been with lilac – a colour associated with mourning. Andrew Bolton, who curated Savage Beauty, has been quoted as noting that McQueen found “poetry and beauty in death”. It’s a statement that resonates profoundly with me as I remember both Lee and Isabella, the visionary who affectionately christened him Alexander the Great.
‘Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!’, Somerset House, London, until March 2 2014, somersethouse.org.uk