The first thing I thought of when I heard earlier this year that Isabella Blow’s personal effects – including her wardrobe – were due to go under the hammer at Christie’s London was a sonnet written by Oscar Wilde and entitled “On the Sale by Auction of Keats’ Love Letters”, specifically the lines: “These are the letters which Endymion/Wrote to one he loved in secret, and apart/And now the brawlers of the auction mart/Bargain and bid for each tear-blotted note.”
It is now an open secret – though I did not want any publicity for my action – that, by purchasing the entirety of the lots, I stopped the auction. Since then, however, there has been so much speculation about why I did this, I have realised an explanation is needed.
The story begins on the morning of May 7, 2007, when I was woken in New York City at 4am by a telephone call from Alexander [Lee] McQueen. I had been dreading, but half-expecting, this call for quite some time. Issie was dead, he said. She had poisoned herself. It was an awful death, an agony that lasted for two days. I don’t think either of us stopped crying for the full hour and a half of our conversation. Lee had seen her just the week before and he was so grateful for having had that time with her; I had, for various reasons, been regularly uprooted from London, and the last time I saw Issie was a fleeting visit before Christmas, though we had spoken in the weeks afterwards and she had seemed more positive about life. Still, I will regret not having seen her during this time for the rest of my days.
God knows, we – her sisters, her friends – had tried to stop this tragedy. Issie had made several attempts to take her own life as her depression took hold over the last few years; often it seemed she could not speak of anything else in her quintessentially English, moving and often hilarious way. Only Issie could make you laugh about a terrible thing like a fatal attraction to suicide. She would describe her obsession in detail, combining her gallows humour with her vast body of knowledge and finishing it all magnificently with her incomparable laugh. Still, she was stubborn and eventually had her way, and we failed. Or, maybe, she won.
My resulting fury at what was, to me, the most tragic loss, is something I cannot, even now, describe. Indeed, I shall never get over Issie’s absence, and when I heard her estate needed to be settled so that her sisters could pay off its debts, the realisation of what that would entail was really the last straw. The planned sale at Christie’s could only result in carnage, as souvenir seekers plundered the incredible body of work Issie had created over her life: the hats she wore every day and had made in duplicate; the laser-cut black leather dress Alexander McQueen had made her with the fitted bodice and full skirt; the shocking pink Jun Takahashi burka she had insisted on wearing to a show in Paris. (Issie had worn the burka after convincing David LaChapelle to shoot models backstage at the couture; before the Dior show an especially earnest journalist from Le Monde had attacked her for her choice of dress. Issie just brushed her off like a vague annoyance, defending her right to dress as she pleased and adding that she was standing solidly beside the women upon whom the burka was imposed.) Isabella never dressed down.
Indeed, in many ways, the auction would not be merely a sale of clothes; it would be a sale of what was left of Issie, and the carrion crows would gather and take away her essence forever. That so much of Issie’s history has become bound up in her death and the way in which she died meant that the main theme of the event would be her end, which is not, by a long shot, the whole story; it should not define her. With biographical books and movies about to appear, the timing made me absolutely nauseous and I know she would have hated it.
Isabella and I belonged to similar worlds and we were educated in much the same way. I knew her, but not as well as I would later, first in the 1980s when I was a teenager and she was married to her first husband. Upon my own marriage I left England for Europe, not to return until about 1998, when we bonded completely. After 16 years London was almost unrecognisable to me: the boom had brought huge amounts of money, and the urban landscape was a shadow of the one I had left. But Issie remembered what I – we – had known, and brought to that an adventurous imagination and spirit that matched my own.
I didn’t think it was a coincidence that her grandmother, Vera Delves Broughton, and my great-grandfather, Walter Guinness, Lord Moyne had been very much an item for years, spending their time on the Rosaura, his boat, sailing around the world in the 1930s, from Papua New Guinea to the jungles of Africa and the deserts of the Middle East. (Walter wrote two books on the cultures he found there, and brought the first living Komodo dragon back to Britain before being assassinated in Cairo as the last British minister in the Middle East.) It seemed as if an invisible hand had drawn us together.
We would often lament the passing of this older England, which was in the process of being poisoned by the presence of so much money that it had become almost impossibly expensive for artists – or indeed, anyone – to live in the city. Issie was often described as eccentric, because it is easier for most people to write off individuality in that hackneyed way, but I would say instead that Issie was irrepressibly generous with her time and her friendship, and had an incredible impact on the worlds of design and art.
She was an aesthete with an unfailing eye and attention to detail, but she was also a person of extreme elegance and good manners. It did not matter to Issie where you came from; she treated everyone with the same respect. Still, Issie understood the world around her less and less, and, frankly, I cannot disagree with that. She expected people to treat her the way she would treat them, and the tragic thing is she was let down many times.
So I made a decision. I called her sister Julia, who is also an extremely good friend, to see what could be done, as I knew that this must have been the most awful choice for Julia and Lavinia, Issie’s other younger sister, whom Issie had named as executors. We agreed a pause button needed to be pushed, and it needed to be done urgently before the wheels of the sale were in full motion. I had the most vertiginous feeling but I knew that I was probably one of the only people who could prevent Issie’s possessions becoming mere morbid memorabilia. Isabella was my friend when she was alive, and that fact is unchanged by her death, and as her friend I did not want anybody misappropriating her vision, her life and her particular genius.
I called Philip Treacy, Issie’s great friend and collaborator, and it turned out that he had been extremely concerned, and when I asked him his opinion of my plan, he was terribly relieved. I called Shaun Leane, another trusted friend, and he gave the same response. I called Amanda Harlech; I called David LaChapelle; it was all just to see if I was being disrespectful in any way but the consensus was unanimous: do it. Christie’s was incredible, they understood the situation. The sale was withdrawn, and I am terribly grateful to them.
So what will I do now?
This is a period of grace, a time for speaking to Isabella’s family and mutual friends to hear their thoughts, for there are many facets of her life to which her sisters and other friends hold the keys that may affect the collective decision. The sheer logistics are daunting, beginning with the multitudes of boxes to be collected from Christie’s. Buying the collection to preserve it was both a very easy and extremely delicate decision to make; the challenge now is much more daunting: to find the right solution for posterity, one that would make Issie happy and to restore her to her rightful place in the fashion constellation.
I want – we want – to do what she would want; what we think she would want. I would like this unique collection, marked by her grace and the fact it was so intimately hers, to allow people (whether students, lovers of fashion, historians) to remember her and benefit from her legacy, when we who knew and loved Issie are no longer here. For that, it needs to be kept whole; it is like a diary, a journey of a life, and a living embodiment of the dearest, most extraordinary friend.
In this way all of Issie’s friends, known or unknown, near or far, both those she chose and those who identify with her, will have access to something that no one should be afraid to call by its proper name: Isabella Blow’s Work of Art.