Q&A: Detmar Blow

Isabella Blow’s husband talks about his new book, Blow by Blow, a tribute to the late beloved fashion icon



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The late Isabella Blow left a lasting imprint in the minds of fashion followers. As a prolific stylist at British Vogue, Tatler and The Sunday Times, she became a celebrity before fashion insiders were boldfaced names. She also came to define what it means to be a true fashion eccentric, filling a void that no one—not Daphne Guinness, Anna Dello Russo or even Lady Gaga—has been able to fill. In her lifetime, Blow became iconic for her surrealist hats, bleeding lipstick and daring ensembles created by the latest design sensation on her radar. She wasn’t just a fashion magpie with an addiction to couture, but rather, a style pioneer utterly devoted to innovation. This quest for the next big name led her to discover Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy, Jeremy Scott, Julien Macdonald, Nicholas Kirkwood and the models Stella Tennant and Sophie Dahl. Though Blow’s legacy is entrenched in fashion history, this tormented icon remains an enigma since her suicide in 2007. Here, her widower Detmar Blow talks exclusively to FLARE about his intimate new book, Blow by Blow, which lays bare the woman behind the avant-garde fashion.

Did you decide to write Blow by Blow as a way of coming to terms with your grief?
DB: Yes. Issie died in May of 2007 and we had a memorial service in September where Anna [Wintour] spoke. By the spring of 2008, I fell into a depression because I was mentally trying to hold it together when Issie was ill. I had to come to terms and make sense of why Issie had done what she did.

How would you describe her relationship with the designers she discovered?
DB: Motherly. Sisterly. Flirtatious. Issie would flutter eyelids at anyone who would pay attention. Juergen Teller told me this story about how he came to see Issie at Tatler in 1986.  She locked the door and started taking her clothes off and he was like “Oh my god.” Then someone knocked on the door. Issie put her clothes back on and never spoke about it again.

FLARE: She was nothing if not shockingly original.  Today, we see many women attempting to channel her eccentric spirit. Do you think she would be flattered?
DB: Issie didn’t like people copying her; it’s an individuality thing. She was not a fashion clone. Issie’s greatness was that she was defiant in wearing young designers and giving them their break. A lot of their ideas and inspirations have come from her.

Lady Gaga has said Isabella is one of her influences. How would she feel about that?
DB: That would be a compliment to her. Initially I was quite shocked by Lady Gaga [saying that] because I’m defending Issie’s memory. But Issie’s gone now and I have to honour her legacy. If people reference her in their work, I’m totally honoured. It took me a bit of time to get my mind around that [concept]. That’s why the book is very important because I got to go over all these stories, which are in my head and from my diary. Now it’s on paper and I’m free, so I’m very happy for people to refer to her.

FLARE: Was the process of writing the book difficult, as you had to relive many painful experiences?
DB: Yes it was, but I had to express myself and my feelings for Issie – all the battles and the joys, the highs and the lows, the positives and the negatives. I wish Issie could have done that. She would write a diary and then destroy it.  I would hide her diaries so she couldn’t wreck them. She didn’t want to look at the darkness.

Isabella did not receive financial compensation for her work in facilitating deals between designers and luxury houses, such as Alexander McQueen and Givenchy. Who do you hold responsible for this, the designers or the fashion industry?
DB: Ultimately, everyone failed her. That industry failed her. That’s what Suzy Menkes and Anna Wintour alluded to in what went wrong. I didn’t want to get too controversial and tried very hard not to be bitter and angry with people in the book. Issie would not have wanted that. However, I did put the boot into Alexander [McQueen]. I think he bloody well deserved it. He let Issie down. There’s no two ways about it.

Her relationship with Alexander McQueen became strained in their later years. Was this because Isabella felt left behind by him?
DB: Alexander was in a very dark place. The part of him that I admired was that he distanced himself from Issie’s dramas. A lot of designers would get involved to some extent. But the way she was left behind was kind of ruthlessness. At that point, Issie had no money, she was bloody depressed and Alexander had really made it. It was terrible! We had to go to his Givenchy shows and try to put on brave faces because we couldn’t go around being angry. Issie just couldn’t walk away from fashion, though part of her was furious.

Beyond McQueen, Isabella served as a mentor to many fashion upstarts who are now major players. What advice would she give them?
DB: Follow your heart. Issie did not believe in a formulaic strategy. She believed in instincts. Issie had a unique eye for talent. After all, McQueens don’t come around every five minutes. They come across maybe once or twice in a lifetime.

Anna Wintour famously gave Isabella her big break as her assistant at U.S. Vogue. What do you think she saw in her?
DB: Issie always credited Anna. If she hadn’t given Issie that break, what the hell would have happened to her? She realized that behind Issie’s theatricality, there was a serious person there. But Anna got frustrated because Issie’s wasn’t taking care of her taxi bills and expenses. Could you imagine?!

FLARE: How do you feel about the way you’ve been portrayed in the press following Isabella’s death?
DB: Fashion people need a scapegoat. They say I’m some sort of murderer who did nothing for Issie. I did my best, just as my mother tried bloody hard with my father [who also committed suicide]. Issie said to me [before she died], “Detmar, anyone who criticizes you is not with my blessing.” She was my protector and now that she’s gone, I often ask myself, “What would Issie tell me to do?” Issie would say to tell the story and tell it honestly.

FLARE: What do you think Issie was trying to communicate through her outlandish style?
DB: She was defiant in the way she dressed, but also, there was a real sadness about it that Anna and I both realized. Issie dressed up to hide the negativity she felt about herself. I had problems with people who would meet Issie for five minutes and say she was a larger than life character and only see that part of her. If you live with someone for eighteen years, you see it all.

FLARE: You’ve definitely honored her legacy with this book and now you have rebuilt your own life and started a family.
DB: You know, Issie would be so pleased for me. Her and I had a great love affair. Right from the beginning, she said to me “Just to warn you Detmar, people are going to be very jealous.” When we first met, I thought she was unbelievable. I was madly in love with her and proposed sixteen days later. We did have a period of separation because Issie was so full of anger and became impossible to live with. But within six months, she fell ill and we got back together. Issie was like a tree with no roots. There was nothing to hold on to so the wind just blew her right over. She couldn’t bend. She just snapped.

What do you hope people take away from Blow by Blow?

DB: That it’s honest and heart-rending. I’ve barely read any of the reviews because I’m a human being and it’s about my wife. I celebrate her life. The book is a celebration of an extraordinary person. When I spoke with John Dempsey (President of Mac Cosmetics), he said she’s one of the most iconic, inspirational women of the last fifty years. And hurray to that!

Blow by Blow by Detmar Blow with Tom Sykes is available in bookstores now.

Follow @FlareFashion on Twitter for details on how to win a copy of the book.