Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Isabella Blow: Why Make a Movie?

News yesterday that there is to be a film about Isabella Blow, the colourful stylist who died by her own hand three years ago, does not inspire confidence. The major excitement seems to be that John Galliano will play himself in the film, which seems to be the brainchild – if that isn't too strong an expression – of milliner Philip Treacy.

Oh dear.

Those of us who knew Isabella, worked with her and found much to empathise with in her life and to admire in her work cannot fail to be apprehensive when nobody as yet has considered it important to announce who will direct this enterprise. Or, indeed, why.

Isabella was a unique character who had many personae, ranging from the grandest of grand – seen only rarely – to the lowlife of London. In this and other respects, she always reminded me of Diana Vreeland. They were both instinctive, could talk with wit and memorable drama and could pluck the essence from cultural and historic moments about which their actual knowledge was hazy to say the least. Both had a filter which screened out the tedious or unnecessary facts and left them with the romantic nugget of gold for which they craved. What if they didn't know their Valois from their Viscontis? Who cared? They always knew what mattered.

Isabella had great zest for the funny, outrageous and shocking, daring herself to go further, to push beyond the limit every time. Her humour was frequently coarse and even cruel and her laugh Rabelasian. She adored extreme fashion, loved to be different and always managed to wear her mainly ludicrous hats with panache. Eccentric? of course not and she was rightly angered by suggestions that she was. Hers was a daily performance, calculated, clever and frequently inspired. Nothing was random or unconsidered. And that was her strength. She was a consummate performer. She needed her public … and she never let it down.

But I think we all knew that there was a terrible vulnerability and insecurity behind it all, something she could not hide. Her self-esteem could dip horribly low. She once summed up her professional life as a stylist as being on a par with working as a trolly-dolly taking food to the captain of the plane. Like a child who cannot grow up, she needed to shock, to draw attention to herself and yet she never wished to be discovered for her real self.

She surrounded herself with young designers, whose careers she promoted with more vigour than judgement in some cases, almost using them as a shield. Their names were a carapace that deflected criticism. Most obviously, she hid behind her costumes and her 'eccentricities', both of which were carefully calculated to obfuscate.

Lightweight and insubstantial as a shimmering dragonfly, Isabella was willful, unreliable and as changeable as the wind, dancing soley to her own inner music, never really heard by the rest of us except as a lingering fairy bell somewhere over the hills and far away. And now this fugitive, vulnerable creature is apparently about to be given 'the treatment', with at least two books rumoured to be coming out this autumn and now the film on the horizon.

Who needs any of them? Certainly not Isabella nor, I would have thought, the reading and film-going public. She should be left in peace, and those of us who have dear memories of her should be allowed to savour them as intensely personal things, to be shared only with those who will understand.

Isabella Blow was a pleasure for connoisseurs, not someone to be shamelessly paraded for the masses to deride.


  1. Her life, fascinating. Her dialogue, hysterical. A play about the life of woman you compare her to (Diana Vreeland), a critical success. Why not make a film about Isabella? And why assume in elitist tones that the masses will deride her? Just look at the adoration of Lady GaGa.

  2. A lyrical poem to an icon.
    Lovely Isabella ... how could anyone impersonate that 'shimmering dragonfly'? What possible point could there be? Cursed be he who attempts to do so.
    As Colin so eloquently writes 'Isabella Blow was a pleasure for connoisseurs, not someone to be shamelessly paraded for the masses to deride'.

  3. dear memories?

    you have slammed her to bits.

    paraded shamelessly? presumptuous, indeed.

    I think, Colin, another cuppa would ease the day.

  4. Dear Lauren,
    OK then, but whom would you suggest should play her?
    I fear it might be too like Audrey Tatou [a fave in other films] who was so implausible as Chanel. She could not even sew convincingly.

  5. I don't see the point of making a feature film about her simply because conventional movies tend to dumb things down so much, but if it were a documentary (surely there is video footage of her, as she was in life), I wouldn't mind.

  6. Thats just the sad state of affairs the entire industry is in.Vulgur exibitionism, stoked by the likes of BryanBoy and approved by the likes of stars like Marc Jacobs.You get so emotional about making a movie about her? What about John Galliano, a fashion God, who has dedicated his life to fashion having to get fashion lessons from a 13 year old Tavi at Dior's couture show? How would that have made him feel? What kind of compromised life do designers of today lead just because some greedy business tycoon who controls the business desperately wants to sell his wares even if it were through a 13 year old with constant verbal diarrhoea? And to call her a child prodigy and liken her to Mozart, what kind of humburg is that? Mozart composed music at age 5, and what is Tavi's creation?

    This is the sad state of affairs.The problem is that of fashion houses trying to be tech savvy the wrong way!! They are so confused by what technology can do for them and have unfortunately misused/misembraced technology the wrong way.The fashion industry requires bright minds, not a bunch of insecure dim wits playing dirty poltics to secure their position. Unfortnately, a Google brain that innovates almost everyday is what the fashion industry so desperately requires. The industry places connections on a higher plane than merit, and now is going down the drain. Such a shame. Throw the bimbos out and bring the nerds in, and the industry will flourish by itself.

  7. i agree with anonymous.

    biopics are just a way to make money off the memories of the greats. they do indeed dumb things down to just the marketable essential highlights of the individual's life, and then throw in a maudlin soundtrack and call it a worry is that lee mcqueen will eventually become the same target of camera-bearing dimwits.

    oh, capitalism doth make cowards of us all.

  8. it will of course be an overproduced vehicle for lady gaga, isn't it obvious from the sources that that is where this is all heading!!

  9. I think this was a very illuminating and poignant tribute and I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it.

    Isabella was certainly a fascinating person. Frankly, the fact that people are even using the name 'Lady Gaga' in relation to her is pretty offensive. In fact, it actually highlights one of the problems that Colin McDowell is referring to in this piece - namely that people always have to reduce everything to concept. Instead of thinking about Isabella and her own unique style, we wind up generalising about her with reference to someone who is a charlatan and a mere imitator. 'Gaga' becomes shorthand for something that actually pre-dates and surpasses 'Gaga' herself. It becomes a concept under which other, more valuable things (and people) are subsumed.

    Similarly, a biopic presents us with a concept of the person it intends to portray, at best partial and embellished, at worst fabricated and sensationalised. Unfortunately, owing to the huge influence of film as a medium, there is a risk that the concept it creates of Isabella could come to be seen as definitive. Watching it as people who never knew her, we look on it not as the image or representation that it is, but rather as the fact of Isabella herself.

    I think the point McDowell is making is that it would be a shame for the real person of Isabella to become reduced to concept, to become subsumed under representation. William James held with his ally Henri Bergson in the belief that experience is constant novelty, constant creation. What exists are things in the making, he said - if something is already 'made', it is dead. It seems that Isabella, who reinvented herself every day, might have agreed with this view. Why then, would she want to be 'made' by other people, to be sealed up in some cinematic rendering, in someone else's vision of who she was?

    She was an innovator, not an imitator. So what exactly is the point in making an imitation of her life?

    I agree with Mr. McDowell. The best way to appreciate this "shimmering dragonfly" is not by putting her in a jar.