Last week the literary equivalent of two women showing up on the red carpet in the same dress occurred: two biographies were published about the same woman, wearing the same jacket. Which is to say, the books were wearing the same jacket photo. Horrors!
Indeed, the woman in question would have been horrified. She did, after all, make it something of a signature never to look like anyone else – “she” being Isabella “Issie” Blow, the British fashion editor/muse/champion of Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy, who committed suicide in 2007. The books are Blow by Blow by her husband, Detmar Blow, and the writer Tom Sykes (previously available in the UK but now published in the US) and Isabella Blow by Lauren Goldstein Crowe (published in the US now, and in the UK next year). The photo, an airbrushed number by Miguel Reveriego, shows Blow resting her chin in her hands while wearing a strapless white dress and a Philip Treacy black feather hat that curves over the upper half of her face to let one eye peek out.
It is very pretty – the “combine harvester” teeth and under-eye bags that Isabella complained about vociferously are nowhere in sight, digitally smoothed into non-existence along with any other imperfection. And the two publishing houses have made an effort (kind of) to differentiate their covers by, on Detmar’s book, making the photo small and floating it on a white background and, for Crowe’s book, using a large close-up set against a background as red as Issie’s lipstick. But the similarity seems odd.
Blow was, after all, frequently photographed. She appeared in Time Out, Vogue and Tatler – all pictures that must have been as considered and choreographed as Reveriego’s. To use the same shot, on books published in the same week, is practically to insist on a compare-and-contrast; to suggest less coincidence than conscious rivalry. Faced with this self-awareness among authors and publishers, who am I to disappoint?
Before I get there, though, a disclaimer: I know Crowe, who has written for these pages. I also have had my own Issie Blow experience – we were placed next to each other at various shows and I was treated to her rather X-rated conversation – although I did not know her well. I also know Detmar Blow’s former girlfriend, Stephanie Theobald, who has also written for these pages. Many of the people who feature in each book, such as Daphne Guinness, have also appeared on these pages. But when I opened the memoirs, I didn’t have any particular agenda or feelings about the authors. I was interested because Blow had been such a colourful character, so I figured her story would make entertaining, and possibly instructive, reading. And, two books later, I did learn something – albeit not what I expected. I learnt that books are just like fashion.
Admittedly, we all know that I think everything is like fashion but, still, it’s rarely been so starkly demonstrated. Just as two women can wear the same dress and have it look completely different because of the way they put it together, two authors can take the same subject and present it in entirely different ways. In the end, it comes down to agenda, just as dressing does. You put clothes on to communicate a certain point about yourself, so, for example, Alexa Chung wears her Chanel with ankle boots and dark eyeliner and looks rebellious, while Diane Kruger wears hers with flowers and looks like an angel. In the same way, people write books to make a certain point either about themselves or what they think.
So Crowe, who was a journalist at Time magazine and clearly once wrestled with the fashion-writer-amid-the-politicos problem, obviously sees Blow as a character in a drama of her own making – her sartorial extremism a manifestation of her own manic depressive moods and the world of dying aristocracy in which she was raised – but also steps away from her story to tackle a much-discussed, rarely resolved, question about Issie: did fashion kill her? Her answer: no. As she writes: “The fashion industry is not alone in being fiercely competitive … but it is uniquely singled out as the root of the problem when one of its workers trips up.” It’s a good point, and one the book serves by depicting Blow as the extraordinary, and singular, person she was.
By contrast, Detmar Blow seems more interested in managing his own reputation than simply telling Issie’s story. In the end, his book is less about his wife than about himself, his sensitive nature and what he wore. (His co-author may have done a good job capturing Blow’s stilted vernacular but it might have been kinder if he had massaged Blow’s words: isn’t there a more normal way to say, “Upon my return [from a holiday] I went to see a psychiatrist who told me I should quit working as a lawyer, which I found uncongenial and uninteresting”?)
Not surprisingly, one of the Blow books has been optioned for a film being planned by Swedish producer Anders Palm. It is interesting that, of the two possibilities, it was not the tome with the romanticised, far-away cover that was chosen, but rather the one featuring the close-up (Crowe’s). Substantively, not just sartorially, it wore its subject well.