Branding: The Repurposing of Isabella Blow and the Papacy
The last time I saw Isabella Blow in person was backstage at the 2003 fall/winter Dior haute couture show. I was standing off to the side of the preparation madness, in between a colleague of John Galliano’s and my too-young German lover. Issy had shanghaied one of makeup wizard Pat McGrath’s assistants and was having her lips retouched right there in the middle of the room as if she were about to walk the runway herself. She was wearing a surreal Philip Treacy hat, of course, its veil rolled up to allow the makeup artist access. (Issy loved veils; they hid her face. They were symbolic of how she felt about herself, one of her sadder traits.)
“Look at Isabella Blow with a big lick of bacon on her head,” Galliano’s colleague said. (She would wear the famous see-through pink burqa at the couture collections later that year.)
“Whatever,” I muttered.
“Oh, look!” exclaimed my lover. “Eets Issa-beh-lla Blow! Do you know her? Can vee meet her?”
“God, please… spare me,” I replied, retreating further into the shadows so she wouldn’t see me. Galliano’s colleague derisively snorted in agreement and we moved off to our seats.
A few years later, a designer friend, whom Issy was trying to promote without much success, invited me for lunch with her at the Dorchester Hotel in London. “God, please… spare me,” I said, and declined. For me to pass up a free lunch at the Dorchester with this designer, one of my favorite people in the world, said everything about how I felt about her.
My friend sighed. “I know. She’ll probably cry all the way through the meal. But she’s so funny when she’s not crying.” Indeed, Issy was hilarious, but by that point her manic depression and her loss of foothold in the fashion world had the better of her wit and, we know now, her wits.
The last time I discussed Issy before she died was in a meeting with British Vogue at the end of 2006 — she killed herself a few months later. We were thinking about an editor from the magazine who could help style a film I was about to direct. “As long as it’s not some flaky, willful eccentric like Issy Blow,” I remember saying. Issy had always embodied the zany, aloof anti-glamour of the British fashion press and that’s not what I wanted for this piece.
“God, please… spare us,” was Vogue’s reaction, more or less. That’s how far Issy had fallen, both in my esteem and in her former colleagues’.
I’d met Issy over twenty years earlier when she was an assistant at American Vogue in New York, at a dinner party in her apartment in Greenwich Village. She was still married to her first husband Nick Taylor; Wikipedia’s dates for their marriage must be incorrect, unless they were divorced and still living together, which is possible because she called herself Issy Broughton, not Taylor. (Wikipedia says they were divorced in ’83, but they were definitely still a couple in ’84/’85, still having sex — I saw them going at it in the bedroom of a house party, and commented to a friend on what a great body she had, in contrast to her wonky face. I know it was later than ’83 because her on-again-off-again friend Rupert Everett was there and Another Country had been released a few months before, and the production date of that film is 1984. So there, Wikipedia.)
From the moment I met her, I was absolutely mesmerized by Issy’s sense of the surreal, her sparkling cheer and humor; she was really fucking funny, but what made her funnier was that goofy, toothy laugh that punctuated almost everything she uttered. Over dinner, she yammered on about her Proust book club; about wearing ball gowns to work and work clothes to balls; how miserable it was to assist the fascistic fashion mavens at Condé Nasty; how wore a gas mask every day when she cycled to work at her previous job — at Guy Laroche in Midland, Texas (huh? where?) — because of the dust; how her father, Sir Evelyn “Jock” Delves Broughton, had bequeathed her only five thousand pounds from a million-pound estate. It was an astonishing degree of condor in front of people she’d just met, but she had a ravenous appetite for zingers, much like me.
She took us on a quick tour of her small apartment and showed off the new outsized closets she’d had custom made in her bedroom. “I want to feel like Alice in Wonderland when I approach my clothes,” she said, slipping off her heels and instantly shrinking half a foot. Indeed, she’d had the doorknobs on the closet placed so high that she had to reach up for them, and she was diminutive even in those heels. It was both really fucking funny and really fucking trippy.
We ran together socially on and off over the next couple of years while she was in New York. I seem to remember that she was eventually fired from Vogue — she was pathologically afraid of “getting the chop,” as she put it constantly, and like everything else that happened to her it was both a self-fulfilling prophecy and her own doing. I was an editor of a fashion magazine at the time and offered her a freelance position writing a column once a month. After chasing her around for a few weeks, she summoned me to her friend Natasha Fraser’s apartment, where she was living temporarily. In a complete reverse of her normal voluble self, Issy sat perched on the edge of the sofa like a doddering Russian princess who didn’t speak a word of English while Natasha spoke for her. Her reasons for declining were perfectly understandable: she was returning to London to work with my friend Michael Roberts at Tatler. Issy behaved so strangely and I was so offended that she couldn’t speak to me directly that I began to dislike her, or feel uncomfortable and wary about her.
I didn’t know that this was common behavior for her and a symptom of her manic depression. My attitude toward Issy was what ninety-five percent of the fashion world and demimonde everywhere thought of her in the last years of her life. Her reaction to that attitude combined with her battle with mental illness and ovarian cancer is what killed her.
Indeed, when she took her own life in 2007, she was considered and treated like a pathetic buffoon. But almost immediately following her death, the second rebranding of Issy Broughton began; the first, to Isabella Blow the Fashion Star Marker and Mad Hat Wearer, was her own doing. This new transformation is reaching its zenith with the hugely acclaimed retrospective “Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!” currently up at Somerset House in London. I haven’t seen the exhibit, but it appears to rival Issy’s friend and fellow suicide Alexander McQueen’s at the Metropolitan Museum not long ago. If you follow fashion photographer Nick Knight’s feed at SHOWstudio on Facebook, which complements the exhibit, it is replete with memorabilia of their long association, from zany typewritten memos to sound bites from messages she left on answering machines, as well as new photos Knight as taken of her collection.
Nobody is sweeping who Issy really was under the carpet — her second husband Detmar’s candid biography, Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow, has seen to that — but what we are witnessing is a skillful repurposing of her image by the British fashion establishment, the very group that helped kill her. It pays to remember that Blow was instrumental in creating that establishment; it didn’t exist when she was discovering and promoting local talent like Philip Treacy and McQueen and Galliano. Let’s face it, at the time I was sitting in Natasha Fraser’s living room revising my estimation of Issy faster than she could bob up and down and titter like a loon, British fashion was a joke. Not any more: Paris couldn’t survive without British designers.
That the exhibit is at Somerset House, home of the British Fashion Council, is an irony that cannot escape anyone who is aware of Issy’s struggles during the last years of her life. Once the primary patroness of British fashion, then its outcast, she has been made a patron saint.
We’re seeing the same repurposing of be-frocked eccentrics with the election and deeds of “Super-Pope” Francis. His The Joy of the Gospel has caused a storm of controversy throughout the world with its firm stand against unregulated capitalism, which the right-wing American wackos from Rush Limbaugh on up have painted as “Marxist” (God, please… spare us). What Pope Frank has done is co-opt the criminally unfocused Occupy movement, deftly buoying the sinking Titanic that is the Catholic Church with populist rhetoric that appeals to the economically oppressed ninety-nine percent. In one fell swoop — and I use ‘fell’ in its twin sense of “terrible evil” — the Pope has obliterated all memory of the sordid financial scandals the Church has been involved with in recent decades, such as laundering money for the Sicilian mafia through the now-defunct Banco Ambrosiano. Whatever Pope Frank says in this first of what will be many encyclicals, he’s no Marxist; the Vatican bank, which made a healthy profit of $117 million in 2012, will continue conducting business from the temple, so don’t close your account just yet.
A far more cynical, subtle maneuvering of the Pope’s image has been this ‘rumor’ that he is slipping out of the Vatican at night to succor Rome’s destitute and homeless. Whether true of false, genuine or staged — and I believe Pope Frank’s motives are genuine — it is nonetheless a dastardly PR move that attempts to shine a blinding beam in order to distract attention from the egregious crimes of the Church. We have made many mistakes, the Church is saying. We acknowledge them but won’t outright apologize for them. But we forgive ourselves, as you should, because of all the good we do for the downtrodden.
As the makers of the wonderful movie Philomena point out, the Church’s self-sanctification is bullshit. “You don’t need religion to lead a balanced and happy life,” Martin Sixsmith tells Philomena Lee. Needless to say, the same applies to works of charity.
I’m not the only one to cry foul. There has been scattered backlash against Pope Frank’s rebranding of the Church, but it’s going to fall on deaf ears as far as the faithful are concerned; they’re momentarily reenergized, feeling proud of Team Jesus after many losing seasons.
I have to admit Pope Frank is as slick a marketer as Steve Jobs. Even heavily atheistic forums like Gawker and Reddit have warmed to the Super-Pope. As an orthodox atheist and a gay man I appreciate that His Holiness has reached out to both atheists and Gheys, but it’s too little, too late. Like Philomena I forgive the Church, and will agree that there’s much to admire about Pope Frank — he is by far my favorite to have stepped into the shoes of the fisherman in my lifetime. But my forgiveness is not unconditional and carries the proviso that the Church must eventually go away, which it will no matter what Pope Frank does to gild the rot at its core.
Just as the Church is rewriting its narrative, the British fashion community is self-sanctifying by revising its opinion of Issy. But Detmar Blow, who knew her better than anyone, is unequivocal in laying the blame for her mental degeneration and suicide at the feet of the industry she helped create. I’m probably stretching an analogy beyond breaking point, but the Romans did exactly the same thing over two thousand years ago after they killed Jesus and then revamped their empire in his name. Whatever the moral issues, let’s call it what it is, darling: marketing genius.