Ossie Clark & Celia Birtwell

1 Jul

Ossie Clark is  the world’s most collectible post-war fashion designer.

This is my third post about a designer in London during the swinging 60ties, because a revolution infashion happened during those days. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones changed the sound of music and young people were ready for their own style in fashion, more appropriate for the new times. Mary Quant was the first to understand and created a look for the new generation and by doing so blasted an opening in the wall of tradition through which other young talents have poured, like Barbara Hulanicki, Jean Muir, Zandra Rhodes and the most flamboyant of all, Ossie Clark. 

Raymond ‘Ossie’ Clark practised tailoring clothes on his dolls when he was not yet ten years old. He attended the Regional College of Art in Manchester at sixteen. Here he got introduced to Celia Birtwell, with whom he became close friends and soon also lovers. Ossie also befriended David Hockney, who became a famous artist/painter. He graduated in 1958 and went on to the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London where Madge Garland, who had worked for British Vogue and as a leading fashion journalist and textile expert, had become the  first Professor of Fashion Design. Magde Garland had great influence on the young and upcoming designers.

Celia Birtwell followed Ossie to London and they lived together in his small flat. His final exam featured a dress with flashing lightbulbs, that was shown in every major news and fashion publication the next day. Ossie Clark got noticed. During the next year (1966) he met Alice Pollock, who owned the exclusive boutique ‘Quorum’ on Kings Road. Alice recognized Ossie’s talent and ordered a collection of dresses, he made in all white and cream chiffon. The collection sold well and for the next collection Alice Pollock commissioned Celia Birtwell to design prints and one of the most famous fashion collaborations was born: Ossie Clark designing clothes and Celia Birtwell designing prints for these clothes. The partnership would last for almost all of Ossie’s career in fashion. She was his muse and inspirer. Her designs would never have gotten so famous without his dresses and his dresses would not have been so outstanding without her designs.

Ossie Clark dresses in prints by Celia Birtwell

Their work became very sought after and the collections sold out in no time. From a top-shelf collection ‘Ossie Clark for Quorum’ became the main collection. In late 1966 Ossie discovered a warehouse, where he found several rolls of untouched python and watersnake skins which were stored for about twenty years. He was able to hide his enthusiasm and purchased the skins for a bargain. The first leather clothes were shown at the Quorum A/W collection 1967. The phyton and snake-skin jackets were a huge success.

Python & Watersnake skin jackets

In the late 1960s the fashion press named Ossie ‘The King of King’s Road’. His love for dance, Nijinsky in specific, inspired him to make his clothes not restricting the female form and allow free movement. This style of dressing became quite popular in the 70ties thanks in large part to the popularity of Ossie’s clothes. He and Alice Pollock were great in creating an image and drawing in the rich and famous, but were not successful in managing the business. In 1967 Quorum was deeply in dept and Alice, together with Ossie, agreed to sell the boutique to a large fashion house, Radley, owned by Alfred Radley.

Alfred Radley continued to support Ossie’s aspirations by developing the ‘Ossie Clark’ brand, which was popular with the rich & famous and also introduced the ‘Ossie Clark for Radley’ collection, which made his designs also available to high street clietele. Radley organized fashion shows at Chelsea Town Hall and the first full fashion show by Ossie in London’s Berkeley Square, which featured black models (Yves Saint Laurent introduced this in Paris).

Ossie Clark was not just popular in London, but also in New York and Paris, where Radley also organised fashion shows for him. But Ossie, who drank heavily and started taking hard drugs with Alice Pollock in the beginning of their collaboration, became more and more unpredictable. When Alfred Radley made an important appointment for Ossie and himself to meet large new buyers from Italy, Ossie didn’t show up and the buyers went home without doing business.

In 1969 Ossie had married Celia, who got  pregnant with their first son, Albert and later they had their son, George. Ossie adored his sons and would have loved to have more children, but the relationship got under a strain. Celia spent most her time raising the boys, while Ossie lived a life of sex (mostly with men), drugs & rock ‘n roll with his famous friends. For a while he went on making clothes for Mick Jagger (also some stage outfits), Keith Richards, The Beatles, Marianne Faithfull,  Tahlita Getty and other well-known people, but when Celia decided to divorce Ossie it went all downwards.

Some rich & famous wearing Ossie Clark

Ossie couldn’t cope with the loss of Celia and his sons and together with his alcohol and substance abuse, he derailed. In the mean time fashion changed and Punk became the new style. When his fortunes declined to bankruptcy, Ossie blamed it on the banks. Taxmen cashed in all his assets. He went bitter and set out the bankruptcy term. He now only worked on private orders from friends and got paid out in rent-free stayovers in weekend houses, free holidays or by paying of his outstanding bills.

In 1978, Ossie met his second long-term partner Nicholas Balaban, who worked as a barman in the famous Sombrero Club in Kensington (the place to spent the night). He encouraged Balaban to start his own fashion business in printed T-shirts, which became hugely successful. But Ossie kept on living an illegitimate lifestyle and Balahan ended the relationship 1983. The next year Ossie went back to work with Radley, produced some beautiful garments, but got sacked the same year. His designs were too complicated to produce commercially. After Balaban died and Ossie converted to Buddhism it was finally time to shake of the past.

In 1996 Ossie got stabbed to death in his flat in Kensington by his 28-year-old Italian on-and-of lover, Diego Cogolato. Cogolato was high and destabilised by a combination of Prozac and amphetamines and reenacted a vision he had the previous day, he was the messiah and Ossie the devil. (Cogolato was only sentenced to six years in prison) By the evening of August 7, family and close friends were informed and the next day newspapers around the world carried the news.

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy  thepainting by David Hockney(1970) hangs in the Tate Britain gallery on Millbank and is one of the most visited paintings in Britain

Style Icon Kate Moss wore a vintage Ossie Clark dress at the rehearsal dinner before her wedding to Jamie Hince.

Celia Birtwell opened shop on Westbourne Park Road in London. The shop has been described as ‘London’s best kept secret’ and is now managed by her son George and his wife Bella. On the online shop you can find  fabrics and wallpaper with her famous prints, but also some beautiful vintage Ossie Clark dresses.    www.celiabirtwell.com

Vogue Italia published a story photographed by Steven Meisel in december 2009, which was inspired by the works of Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell.

To read more about this tumultuous time I can recommend two books: Celia Birtwell by Celia Birtwell and Dominic Lutyens &  The Ossie Clark Diaries,edited and introduced by Lady Henrietta Rous. To order at  www.amazon.com

                         Raymond ‘Ossie’ Clark     9 June. 1942  –  6 August, 1996

2 Responses to “Ossie Clark & Celia Birtwell”

  1. Soul Safari 2 July 2012 at 13:03 #

    love your informative and extensive portrait of a true fashion icon. Thanks for all the beautiful pictures too…great stuff!

    continue to inspire

  2. Outside The Vogue 18 November 2015 at 12:32 #

    Great post! Amazing information 🙂 Thanks

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