60’s fashion designer Ossie Clark in retrospective Manchester exhibition
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 February 2014
The Studio Workshop
As a retrospective of his work is due at Manchester’s Gallery of Costume, we look back at the life of Warrington fashion designer Ossie Clark
It is doubtful that the ‘60s would have ‘swung’ in quite the same way were it not for Ossie Clark.
From his pen and his imagination came mini dresses which were a hallmark of the age, but then also the midi and maxi. And, when Clark worked with the romantic fabrics produced by his wife Celia Birtwell, the result was sensuous clothing which flattered and celebrated the female form.
His crepe or chiffon dresses, with their nipped-in waists and plunging necklines, quickly gained popularity and were imitated across the high street. Clark was adventurous in his use of unusual textures and helped to transform trousers into fashion essentials for women as well as men.
To this day, vintage examples of Clark’s designs are still sought after by the likes of Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. And many a fiftyish and sixtyish lady still finds wardrobe space for a treasured Ossie Clark, keeping alive memories of an occasion half a lifetime ago, made special by the man who knew what women wanted to wear.
Raymond Clark was born on June 9 1942, and spent his formative years in Warrington, though his family moved to Oswaldtwistle during the war, hence the nickname ‘Ossie’. Showing a flair for art at technical college, Clark went to the Regional College of Art in Manchester, where he met Celia Birtwell, a textile designer who hailed from Salford.
A scholarship took Clark to the Royal College of Art at a time when London was becoming the world capital of fashion and popular culture. He designed dresses for the London boutique Quorum, and in his most successful years from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, the likes of Mick and Bianca Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and Liza Minnelli came to him for clothes. His designs were modelled by Twiggy and photographed by David Bailey, and the partnership between Clark and Celia Birtwell was captured in 1970 with a painting of them by David Hockney which hangs in Tate Britain to this day.
By the mid-’70s, though, the marriage to Birtwell was over, and fashion was moving away from him, sweeping away Clark’s romanticism much as punk rock was elbowing aside the old guard in rock music. By 1981, Clark was bankrupt and depressed, working only sporadically. He became more estranged from the world in which he was once an exalted figure. In 1996 and aged 54, Ossie Clark was stabbed to death in his London council flat by his former lover Diego Cogolato, who was convicted of manslaughter.
Ossie Clark: A British Fashion Genius 1967-77 features 25 outfits by the hugely influential British designer, many of them on show in Manchester for the first time. It runs from January 30 to July 27 at the Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, Rusholme, Manchester, M14 5LL, tel 0161 245 7245. Free entry.