Philip Treacy sat in the basement of the Royal College of Art considering a hat he had just finished making. It bore a thistle and a rose, the symbols of Scotland and England. He had made it to be sold at Harrods, but Isabella Delves Broughton, the woman who had recently commissioned him to make her a hat for her wedding, had asked him to call should he make anything he thought would strike her fancy. She was, he thought, very English and she’d mentioned she had cousins in Scotland, so he rang her and left a message about the hat. When he didn’t hear back, he sent the hat to Harrods. Isabella rang the next day wanting to see the hat. Philip explained that it had been delivered to the store. “But it’s mine!” Isabella said and hung up the phone. She promptly phoned Harrods and asked if she could borrow the hat for a shoot she was putting together for Tatler magazine. It never saw the selling floor again.
The knocker thudded again against the heavy wooden door of 67 Elizabeth Street, a five-story house that lay in the nondescript area between London’s affluent Belgravia neighborhood and the urban sprawl surrounding Victoria Station. Isabella fairly flew down the narrow staircase of the town house, cigarette in hand, wearing the ecclesiastical robes she’d bought the day before from Watts, a supplier of church fabrics and uniforms behind Westminster Abbey. When she swung open the door, Philip Treacy was stunned to see her in a deep red silk robe with its accompanying white tunic. She looked rather beautiful, he thought, with her hair falling about her head in soft golden brown waves and her lips smeared with deep red lipstick. Treacy had, at the time, his own penchant for unusual dress. He was tall and thin with reddish blond hair and had taken to dressing daily in red, and only red, from his shirt down to his shoes. But he was a fashion student, and such peccadilloes were to be expected.
Isabella, on the other hand, was not a student. She was a fashion editor at Tatler magazine and the bride-to-be of a young barrister whose family owned a stately home outside of Gloucester. Still, though she might have come from one of the oldest families in England, though she might be on a first-name basis with members of the royal family, there was nothing fusty about Isabella—least of all the way she dressed. She was constantly looking for new things to wear or new ways to wear old things. And now she was busy planning costumes. In just a few months’ time, on her thirty-first birthday, November 19, 1989, she would be able to dress an entire cast exactly as she pleased for her spectacular wedding in Gloucester Cathedral. There would be no traditional white gown for Isabella—fashion dictates of the day would be damned. Isabella wanted the wedding to be medieval—really medieval, as if Eleanor of Aquitaine were getting married, not a fashion editor from a society magazine. To accomplish this would take more than a trip to an expensive bridal boutique. It would take the help of her growing cadre of friends in fashion.
She led Treacy upstairs into a dark blue drawing room furnished with curtains, tablecloths, and lampshades all in floral Fortuny fabrics. Standing in front of a blue and gray Victorian marble fireplace was the largest black man Treacy had ever seen. André Leon Talley, then the fashion news director at American Vogue, was magnificent in a multicolor robe. (“If you’re six feet seven inches tall, you may as well wear a beaded caftan,” Talley has been known to say.)1 Next to him was a not as tall, but tall nevertheless, gray-haired man in a bespoke Anderson & Sheppard double-breasted gray suit and spotless brown leather brogues. It was celebrated shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. Isabella introduced them only as André and Manolo. Treacy recognized neither of the men, and even had Isabella included last names in her introductions, it wouldn’t have helped. He had never heard of them, either.
Similarly, Isabella didn’t belabor Treacy’s introduction. “This is Philip,” she said. “He is making my wedding hat.” She didn’t mention that Treacy, unlike Manolo Blahnik, was lacking an established reputation, not to mention a decade’s worth of experience. Neither did she mention that Treacy, unlike André Leon Talley, was not used to the company of fashion luminaries such as the new editor of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, or Diana Vreeland, who would die that August. Treacy was twenty-two, a student, and he was learning to make hats at London’s Royal College of Art. Isabella didn’t mention that, either. He was simply “Philip” and he was making her hat.
Philip Treacy had met Isabella when he made a hat for a shoot for Tatler magazine. When he came to the office to collect the hat, the magazine’s art director said he should meet Isabella, who was working with Michael Roberts, the magazine’s creative director. Isabella came into the room wearing a transparent cobweb top by John Galliano, an A-line skirt, flaming red lipstick, and high heels. No one else in the office looked like that. The others were all wearing the traditional beige/gray office wear of the day—and trousers dominated, even on the women. “It was evening for day before it was acceptable,” Treacy recalled of Isabella’s attire. “It was a little unusual.” Isabella took the hat he’d made, done in a 1920s style with jagged sycamore leaves adorning it, inspected it, and returned it. Treacy then left. “I can’t say it was love at first sight,” he said. “She was a bit cool, actually.”2 Isabella said, “I didn’t meet Philip. I met the hat. I was more interested in the work than in Philip at that point. I’d never seen anything like it. It was beautifully made and an emerald green…no, more grass-hopper green. It was so exquisite that when we pulled it out of the box it was like we shouldn’t be touching it.”3
The next day Isabella phoned the Royal College of Art and asked what Treacy’s schedule was like for the next six months. “There was a temp answering the phones,” Treacy said. “She told me this woman was ringing wanting to know my schedule. I was thinking, ‘What schedule?’ I’m a student.” When she reached him, Isabella said she wanted him to make a hat for her wedding and explained that the theme for the wedding was medieval. “I barely knew what medieval meant,” Treacy said.
A flurry of phone calls followed. It seemed every time the phone rang for Treacy, it was Isabella on the other end. Sometimes she’d be asking how the hat was progressing, but increasingly it was just to ask if he was okay, or to see if he needed anything, or to tell him about a book she was reading or an exhibition she had seen. “We spent weeks courting over the headdress,” he said. “It was the most incredible thing ever. It was like an affair, it was very intense. I thought all fashion people were like that.”
At the time, Philip Treacy didn’t really know many fashion people, but that was about to change. “Philip,” Isabella now said, in her blue drawing room in 1989, presenting him to two of the most esteemed men in fashion, “show them the hat.” Treacy had almost forgotten he was holding a bookbag containing his drawing of Isabella’s wedding hat. It wasn’t so much a hat as a headdress, two feet of swirling gold spirals held together by the finest of mesh. He had based the hat on Cecil Beaton photographs of Lady Diana Cooper in the 1930s play The Miracle. “Show them, Philip!” Isabella urged again. He hesitated. Why would two grown men want to see his drawing of a wedding hat? And an unusual one at that? Isabella nudged him in the ribs with her elbow. He bent and took the drawing of the golden headdress out of his bag and handed it over. He was surprised to see the two grown men go into raptures of ecstasy. He never expected anything like that. “They liked it,” he said. “A lot.”
At that time, English women, when they wore hats, wore hats that could almost always be described as pretty. Bows, flowers, and ribbons adorned simple round shapes that were worn primarily for tradition-laden occasions like Ascot or church weddings. The deviation of Treacy’s concept from the fashion norm of the day only seemed to make the wedding headdress all the more appealing to Talley and Blahnik.
By the time of Isabella’s death, eighteen years later, even the most conventional of British women were matching the pastel suits still favored for summer fêtes with towering pom-poms, horse’s heads, or ice-cream cones. Camilla Parker Bowles, the second wife of Prince Charles, may not have realized it, but it was thanks to Isabella Blow that she had come to accept the more modern interpretation of headwear heralded by Philip Treacy. For the blessing service following her April 2005 wedding to the future king, her head was adorned by a Philip Treacy–designed fan of feathers.
That day in 1989, the trio went downstairs to the dining room, located in the basement. The house belonged to Helga, a Sri Lankan and Isabella’s soon-to-be mother-in-law, and was decorated in a bold and colorful way that betrayed the woman’s Eastern roots. Next to the dining room was a glass extension that Helga was using as a boutique of sorts, full of high-collared Sri Lankan coats of silk with handmade brass buttons as well as other curios she would periodically bring back from trips to her native country. The dining room was painted a glossy scarlet red and decorated with antique Sri Lankan spears and a Chinese wall hanging depicting, in pearls, the scene of a wedding. The quartet sat at the dining table beneath the wall hanging to talk about Isabella’s wedding and eat the roasted chicken and potatoes she had prepared.
All of the things Isabella had ever wanted seemed to be falling into place. She was thirty, she had found a job as an editor at Tatler that she both enjoyed and was good at, and she was finally getting married in a pact that would bring her not just love, but security. Although the family of Detmar Blow, her fiancé, wasn’t as grand as hers, it did possess a habitable manor house called Hilles, over which she planned to preside. A grand house like Hilles, or like her family’s boarded-up Doddington Hall, in the northeast of England, wasn’t just a beautiful structure in which to live. In England, as in much of Europe, the stately home embodies family pride and status. Isabella imagined she would spend her weekends entertaining guests at Hilles, her weekdays working on fashion shoots for Tatler, and her weeknights hosting dinners for an eclectic mix of titled friends from her past, not to mention the artists and designers who were increasingly a part of her present, and sure to be a part of her future as her stature in fashion grew. A year or two from now, she hoped, she’d be a mother and could shower all the affection on her child that she felt had been denied in her own youth.
During lunch, Treacy explained about Diana Cooper and The Miracle and was surprised to find that these two men knew exactly the photos that had inspired him. Manolo Blahnik said he would take his inspiration for Isabella’s shoes from Treacy’s hat and make them extra long, extra pointy, and from gold mesh.
But what of the dress? The dress was a problem. Isabella wanted it in purple, which the assembled agreed would be fabulous. (At her wedding the only person in white would be the Turkish designer Rifat Ozbek, who was wearing a suit from his own all-white collection, with mirrors on the back that spelled out, “Release It.”) Isabella had hoped that Britain’s most famous young designer, John Galliano, would make her dress for her, but he had pulled out. (Or Isabella pulled out when she found out the cost. When it came to Isabella, with her penchant for ignoring facts for the sake of a good story, one could never be entirely sure where the truth stopped and fiction began.)
Michael Roberts, a close friend of Talley’s and Blahnik’s, who was also Isabella’s boss at Tatler, had suggested Nadia La Valle, an Italian friend and designer who had a line called Spaghetti and a shop at 32 Beauchamp Place. Isabella had asked Treacy to accompany her to the shop the week before to discuss the dress with La Valle. While there, someone Isabella later called “a grand fashion queen” asked her, in front of Treacy, why she was having a student make her headdress. “I watched Issie’s response, and her face was just blank,” Treacy said. “She shrugged, like, ‘Why not?’ She didn’t give a fuck that I was a student.” Isabella’s instincts were right. The dress La Valle made was arresting—figure-hugging purple velvet, hand embroidered with gold trompe l’œil necklaces, and trailing a fifteen-foot train. Yet years after her death, Isabella’s friends would ruminate on what the dress would have looked like had it been designed by Alexander McQueen, whose clothes she fell in love with when she saw them on the runway of his graduation show. No one would ever question Treacy’s headdress.
After her guests departed, Isabella trundled upstairs to Detmar’s bedroom, next to the drawing room, on the first floor. Above it was the bedroom of Selina, Detmar’s younger sister, and Helga, his mother. Selina, twenty-one, had recently moved to New York, and Helga was spending increasing amounts of time in Sri Lanka, so Isabella and Detmar usually had free rein over the Elizabeth Street home. “The house,” said Lucy Birley, “always had its problems. Damp, cracks in the walls, things breaking. It felt like something reaching the end of its useful life.” But not to Isabella. Although she didn’t own the structure, she’d taken over its soul. Whereas for much of her adult life she had been a gypsy, staying with friends rather than setting down roots, now she had a place where others could come and crash with her. “It was the most glamorous hostel ever,” said Sophie Dahl, one of the models Isabella would lead into the fashion business. When Helga wasn’t around, the house would usually be in a state of disarray. Guests would find packs of Benson & Hedges cigarettes and cups of tea on the various side tables. Upstairs were large wooden tea chests with Isabella’s clothes spilling out of them; Manolo Blahnik shoes lying helter-skelter where she’d kicked them off; bottles of Fracas, Isabella’s only fragrance, on the dressers and in the bathroom.
The guests at Elizabeth Street represented the more modern Britain that had emerged in the country’s Swinging 1960s and ’70s, a bohemian mix of artists, entertainers, and models, including Boy George, Naomi Campbell, Rifat Ozbek, corset maker Mr. Pearl, and rich aristocrats united mostly by their love of a good time—and all of them attracted to Isabella’s wicked sense of humor and natural ease as a host. She would stand in the kitchen, cigarette in hand, talk on the phone, make dinner (or lunch, or breakfast, as required), and keep the conversations going among the people around her. In actuality, it wasn’t so much conversation that was taking place as a one-woman show, performed so arrestingly that no one noticed Isabella was doing most of the talking. A sample of her conversational style was published years later, when she was asked to describe forthcoming renovations on her home:
We’re going to have glass sculptures made especially for the hats, and the furniture is coming from a countess’s palazzo in Venice. I’m going to have a bath shaped like a gondola that will be filled with Egyptian chocolate. It’s very good for the skin. I hated Egypt when I went there. Too many people. But that’s where you get the best chocolate for bathing in, which reminds me. I’ve got a corset made in the shape of a gondola. I wear it all the time. It’s made by the new boy at Worth…. He’s a genius.4
She peppered her talk with “Don’t you agree?” “Can you believe it?” “Do you know him?” “Have you been?”—helping add to the illusion that what was happening was an interaction, not a monologue. If Isabella hadn’t been fascinating, this routine would never have worked.
When Philip Treacy finished school and was looking for a place to live and work, Isabella asked Helga if he might take over the boutique in the basement. Helga loved the idea, and it was agreed he would pay £1,500 a month in rent. Isabella meanwhile found it was not only fun but also incredibly convenient to have her own milliner on the premises. She’d come home from work, bathe, dress for the evening, and then go downstairs to see what Treacy had been working on that day. Together they’d pick one of his hats to go with whichever outfit she’d selected for the evening, be it a low-cut lace dress or a pair of velvet britches. “The hats were characters to her. She would talk about them as if they were our friends or our babies,” Treacy said. “I think she should come with me,” Isabella would say. At the end of the evening, she’d return and bring the hat downstairs, telling Treacy, “She had a marvelous time!” or, “You wouldn’t believe what so-and-so said about her.” Treacy loved every minute of it. “I knew that Isabella being Isabella, that that hat had gone out. That she’d marched into Claridge’s with it like she owned the place.”
Isabella with a neon cloud above her head was not going to go unnoticed, but that doesn’t mean it set Treacy’s business booming. “The kind of hats I had were a little alarming,” he said. “No one wanted them but her.” Isabella would try to convince people of his talents, but “no one wanted to look like that.” One customer came into Philip’s basement lair in Elizabeth Street thinking it was the shop of another Philip, the more conservative milliner Philip Somerville, and fled when she saw the hats. “I tried to show her some things,” said Treacy. “But she just legged it.”
“In the old days people were frightened by my hats,” Isabella said later. “But…Philip has single-handedly broken through all the barriers. And now people want what I’m wearing. It’s really weird. I’m being hotly pursued for my head now. I feel like Marie Antoinette.”5
For a young couple about to be married, life at Elizabeth Street was an atypical existence. Isabella and Detmar spent little time alone in each other’s company. With flexible working hours, Isabella would spend much of the day zooming Treacy around in her VW station wagon, insisting he sit in the back and referring to the two of them as Harold and Maude, the main characters of a classic British film about a young boy having an affair with a much, much older woman. Detmar, on the other hand, spent his days at court as an apprentice, trying to impress the older and esteemed men he worked for. At night Detmar was thrilled to find himself in the company of such interesting creatures as Isabella attracted.
Detmar was a far more conservative character than Isabella. When she was living in New York, working for Anna Wintour and hanging out with Andy Warhol, he’d been diligently studying at the London School of Economics. But this was the source of his attraction to her. If she’d fallen for him at least in part because of Hilles, it could equally be said that he fell for her because of the social networks she opened up. He’d grown up in fairly sequestered circumstances, with a father who was mentally ill and a much younger mother who came from a foreign country, overwhelmed trying to take care of her husband and their three children. Detmar’s brother, Amaury, said of their father, “My mother tried to keep his illness from us, but we were aware of it. Christmas could be cancelled, birthdays deferred, because he’d go into a depression…My poor mother was at her wits’ end.”6
Now that many of the country’s most fascinating people were practically living in his mother’s house, for Detmar that troubled time must have seemed very far behind him. On the weekends, he and Isabella would take a select group of her friends to Hilles. It had been built by his grandfather, a sort of champagne socialist with the idealistic goal of building a home where honest, hardworking members of the working class could mingle happily with aristocrats. Detmar had been waiting all his life to preside over Hilles as Lord of the Manor, and now, with Isabella as Lady of the Manor, that dream was finally coming true—in the most fantastic way imaginable. His country weekends would not be filled with the boring City types with whom he had to work during the week, but with an eclectic mix of sizzling personalities who would make him feel scintillating by association and ultimately lead him to quit his career at the bar in favor of a new start as an art dealer. He’d always been immensely proud of Hilles, but when he met Isabella, he realized that a stately home wasn’t much good if the right people weren’t around to admire it. “It’s not the grandest or the most famous house in England,” Detmar said in a video to promote his book on Isabella, “but it became one of the most interesting to visit…. She brought the house to life.”
ISABELLA BLOW Copyright © 2010 by Lauren Goldstein Crowe.