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Tracing the fashion-making collaboration between milliner Philip Treacy and his muse and maker Isabella Blow, Treacy's creations are a touching memento of the late Blow's legacy.

Tracing the fashion-making collaboration between milliner Philip Treacy and his muse and maker Isabella Blow, Treacy's creations are a touching memento of the late Blow's legacy.


St. Petersburg's Russian Museum is currently playing host to an exhibition with a marvelous history and pedigree. It's the story of the meeting of a shy, talented Irish man and an outgoing, fearless English woman, and the honoring of the creative, revolutionary, professional and personal partnership that ensued and helped lift two shining stars into the fashion stratosphere. "When Philip Met Isabella," a world-traveling exhibition that was born in London in 2002, is not just an examination of the thrilling collaboration between milliner Philip Treacy and muse/promoter/doyenne Isabella Blow, but now, ultimately, it is an homage to the memory of Blow, who passed away this May.

Created to look like a black box, hats are displayed inside individual glass cases to resemble rare tropical fauna or, more precisely, jewels. And they are, in every sense, both rare and jewel-like. Blow was a daring provocateur when it came to clothing and accessories – not, as is so frequently the case, just for purposes of lazy provocation, but because it was her genuine personality and a creative side she wanted to explore. She relied on other designers to extract and express that for her, and, with Treacy, Blow found the man who could bring her inner fantasies to life.

From the end of the '80s, starting with Blow's unconventional Medieval wedding headdress, and heading off through the endless flying saucers, elaborate ships in sail, fairytale castles, dramatically arched feathers, horns – the whole shebang – Treacy outfitted Blow with the most head-turning of headwear for every fashion show, dinner and event she attended, and far beyond – for Blow almost never left the house without something on her head. To her, wearing a hat, in whatever form, was as natural as putting on a pair of shoes. This exhibition, which is constantly evolving and is now expected to evolve even more due to Blow's passing, is the show-stopping evidence of Treacy's mind-boggling craft and Blow's unstoppable daring and dash.

The show might, to a wider viewing audience, be described as somewhat esoteric. Clearly it hasn't proved to be, as, since opening in the Design Museum in London in the fall of 2002, the show has gone on tour all over the world, an activity that shows no signs of slacking. But how did such an exhibition come about in the first place?

"The idea really derives from a magazine article, a feature that I'd read in The New Yorker about Isabella Blow and this incredible working relationship she'd had with Philip Treacy, and all the incredible hats he'd designed for her. And I just thought that the whole milliner-and-muse focus would make for a really interesting exhibition," explains Donna Loveday, Head of Exhibitions at the Design Museum and curator of this one. "So we contacted Philip and Isabella, and they were both thrilled with the idea and put the exhibition together. And since the show here, it's been all over the world, and it's had an incredible response wherever it's gone."

Where it's gone has ranged from Australia to Denmark, from Ireland to the US, from Germany to Russia, where it is currently on show until July 5. Next up, from this October to February, 2008, it will be at The Dowse in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. The show, since its inception, has been accompanied by a book, "When Philip Met Isabella" (Assouline).

Cathy Horyn, chief fashion critic for The New York Times, surmised on her blog, following Blow's passing, that "there must have been an aesthetic connection between her more exotic hats and her grandmother, Lady Vera Delves Broughton, an explorer and big-game hunter, the holder of several British Isles records, who claimed to have eaten part of a tribesman in Papua New Guinea... [Blow's hats] were like big-game trophies, their spirit in her blood."

So it's no surprise that Blow's husband, Detmar Blow, in a heartbreakingly beautiful eulogy he wrote in London's Sunday Times the week after his wife's passing, noted Isabella's strong habit for collecting game other than trophies – specifically, talent. "My mother had a run-down house in Belgravia. Issy had met Philip Treacy around the same time as me, and he was soon installed in the basement, followed later by Alexander McQueen. So she could do something to really help the people she believed in," he explained. "Philip was still a student at the Royal College of Art then, and the first thing he showed her was a green felt hat with jagged, crocodile teeth edges. She wore his hats ever after, hats in the shape of lobsters or sailing ships."

Isabella was once quoted as saying, testifying to the restorative power of aesthetics and creation, "If I am feeling really low, I go and see Philip, cover my face and feel fantastic."

As Detmar Blow noted, his late wife, an incubator and promoter of talent that was sometimes below the radar of mass understanding, saw nothing wrong with doing everything in her power to help that talent find root and a space in which to grow and blossom. Editor, stylist, peerless iconoclast, with Treacy she was – especially when it came to the hats he was making for her – a willing participant throughout the whole creative process, and it was the same with McQueen. An enthusiastic patron without the vast financial reserves to back up her enthusiasm, she was, however, memorably described by McQueen as "a cross between a Billingsgate fishwife and Lucrezia Borgia." As Cathy Horyn wrote, "She wore McQueen better than anyone else; the clothes were realized on her in a way they were not on other women, and probably because she understood their entire aesthetic history."

"She was the first truly English person I met when I came over here [from Ireland]. I couldn't quite believe her, and in 20 years, when I have done everything and met everyone there is to meet, nobody beat Isabella," Treacy told The Guardian newspaper the day of her death. "She was a breath of fresh air, all the beauty, elegance and glamour that fashion should be."

Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of US Vogue, whom Blow once assisted, said, "Isabella was this amazing bright light in a world of increasingly corporate culture."

"She was an incredible person, a character, a true visionary," Loveday remembers fondly. "When we were sitting down and talking about the concept for the show, the layout, the content for this very immersive installation, she came up with some amazing, very creative ideas. And also, she was very warm, very generous, very encouraging to me, and obviously we kept in touch throughout the tour."

But as with all creative people, especially one whose references came through contradictory, plucked from the air thick and fast, collaborating with Blow was not always a lighthearted affair. "She could be very challenging," Loveday admits, unsurprisingly. "It was sometimes not easy, but then we'd make inroads. At the end of the day, it was certainly a very, very enjoyable experience, and a memorable one, and I can look back and feel very, very privileged to have been able to have worked with her and with Philip. And to have created such an incredible show that people are still enjoying."

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