Review of Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at Somerset House, London

Exhibitions at Somerset House are always an event, vibrant and full of personality; Fashion Galore! continues along this thread, portraying the life of Isabella Blow (1958-2007) – model, muse, designer and stylist – through over 100 pieces from her own iconic wardrobe.

The show has been described as ‘bittersweet’, which it surely is: initially and jubilantly celebrating Blow’s contributions to the fashion world, before lamenting her premature death through two emotive film pieces: first with footage of La Dame Bleue, the collaboration between Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy, dedicated to Blow; and secondly with a film documenting the exhibition catalogue shoot, stylised and set to a dreamlike soundtrack.

This sombre finale may have had some visitors crying during my visit, but it in no way detracts from the electric, silhouette-transforming dresses, mismatched shoes and simply bizarre hats which form the breadth of Fashion Galore!. However, the film work does add real intimacy: reaffirming just how valuable Blow was to those that she worked with, and the young talents (McQueen, Treacy, Sophie Dahl and Stella Tennant to name but a few) that she discovered.

This exhibition is certainly more a visual biography of Blow than simply a presentation of her collection: bespoke mannequins made by Shona Heath dressed in outfits she wore; tiny screens displaying the collections which saw her headhunt Julien Macdonald and Hussein Chalayan; her portrait by Tim Noble and Sue Webster positioned next to a section detailing her turbulent childhood; and the odd shoes which she wore – and which saw Andy Warhol remark “that’s amazing! You had to buy two pairs!” – quirkily arranged in sets of three.

Nurturing unique talents, inspiring numerous artists and designers, and working for Vogue, Tatler and the Sunday Times Style, Blow was a significant influence within the 21st century British fashion industry; however she was also a sharp-witted and intense character who – detailed in the show through quotes, letters and printed faxes – entertained and befriended almost everyone she met.

Fashion Galore! is a beautifully curated, moving portrayal of an extraordinary ‘life lived through clothes’.

Chloe Hodge

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!, 20 November until 2 March, Embankment Galleries, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA.

Images: Installation views. Courtesy Somerset House