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Isabella Blow: The ultimate designer's muse

Nigel Coates admires the content of the Somerset House exhibition but questions the architecture which contains it

As Marc Jacobs says, museum shows about fashion never really work. ‘They kill the clothes dead when what they need is to be worn, to give them life and movement.’ In Isabella Blow’s case this is no longer an option. A vivacious fashion driver whose depression was her Achilles heel, she died by her own hand in 2008, leaving behind the rich, bumptious collection presented at Somerset House.

At lunch a few days after the opening, two über-fashion friends could not contain themselves. ‘It’s too soon, no distance’ they chirruped. Certainly she was never comfortable in life and often joked about ending things. Despite her innate enthusiasm and an unerring conviction for the currency of style, her life was a constant dance with death, with fashion as its cloaked accomplice.

Gown after gown, and hat after hat, visiting this exhibition you are reminded how cleverly Isabella hid behind versions of the same flamboyant mask. Many of Philip Treacy’s hats partially obscure the face, or in some cases cover it completely. A scarf caught in the wind appears to stick to her profile, covering her eyes, and all but compromising her identity.

But fashion always expends much more energy avoiding capture than articulating hard and fast rules. Here the aptly titled Fashion Galore! stirs its essence: to abstain from any rationale, to assert its very newness while sidling alongside its ciphers and stereotypes. Therein lies its relevance − even to architects.

The riverside galleries at Somerset House are never easy; their bridge-like configuration demands clever distraction from the rigidity of the path they prescribe. Rightly the exhibition begins at the beginning, in a dark valve of a room filled with family memorabilia; we learn that Isabella was born into an aristocratic family that fell on hard times, and it was fashion that helped reshape her personality. She championed young designers, in particular Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen and hat designer Philip Treacy, buying their degree collections and promoting them however and whenever she could.

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In the front row at McQueen’s thrilling Autumn/Winter 1996 catwalk presentation entitled Dante, and held provocatively in Christchurch, Spitalfields, she cheer-led his unique combination of cutting skill and punk macabre. Clothes she acquired from it are installed here on mannequins arranged statue-like on tall plinths in a colonnaded chapel, sadly more Mussolini than Hawksmoor, and no match for Christchurch.

The architectural additions continue with walls of safety plastic and mirrored louvres. We climb the stair to the principal galleries and enter a sequence of spaces dedicated to various fashion moments in which Blow was instrumental. She was always in her element when ‘truffling for talent’.

More fabulous clothes, more scintillating hats, and yes, her voice rings through. We learn about her passionate orchestration of clothes not only to wear, but how they appear in the fashion stories she edited for the likes of The Face, Tatler and the Sunday Times. At her height she was an essential presence at any fashion event that counted; she not only wore the clothes but was a fashion guiding light that was always hot on the trail. ‘I need a silhouette that won’t catch in car doors.’

For it wasn’t only hats she loved. Design collaborator Shona Heath offsets the dry rigidity of Carmody Groarke’s layout with some wayward display cases for smaller items like shoes and accessories. Adding occasional outbursts of surrealistic exuberance, these TV-like blocks sprout arms and limbs − a pair of odd shoes (so Issy). And there are more shoes by the most desirable of designers like Manolo Blahnik and Alain Tondowski. Often they had been worn into the ground.

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Burning down the house: Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow

Given this swirling lifestyle and the sheer energy of Issy and her clothes, the mannequins in militaristic line-ups seem off kilter. Wouldn’t it have been possible for us, the visitors, to mix more equivocally with the mannequins? The architecture of the show colludes with the clothes to take over, and sometimes Issy’s voice seems dulled to a whisper, most literally in a circular side-chamber dedicated to some of her finest outfits. More mannequins on high plinths, this time with spooky Issy faces and occasional transparent bubble masks, fill the room with yet more exquisite hats and gowns. But close to the wall you can hear her talking. She’s living the life, hurrying from city to city, show to show. By sticking to the walls in the manner of the dome at St Paul’s, she speaks to you from the beyond. Very clever.

Seeing the culture of clothes through the eyes of the wearer, and in Blow’s case the obsessive collector, adds insight in spades. Avoiding the behest of the designers themselves, this is a refreshing way of interpreting fashion. But rather than letting the story loose, curiously the ‘architecture’ impedes it. I am reminded of the clichéd view of the architectural temperament − that which imposes order and geometry wherever possible. Whether in fashion, or dance, or music, when geometry is involved people misinterpret it as architectural. Gianfranco Ferré’s clothes were said to be ‘architectural’. But surely there is more to architecture than that? When called upon to do, and this exhibition is a good example, architecture should be able to evoke movement rather than contain it.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!

Venue: Somerset House
City: London
Dates: until 2 March

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