The man who knew everyone

Sometimes, talent isn't enough. Ossie Clark, one of the Sixties' top designers had plenty - but died in poverty and oblivion, killed by his gay lover. By David Thomas
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The Independent Culture
I was 18, and he made me take off my bra and knickers," remembers Marianne Faithfull. "I said, `How do you expect me to go out like this?' And he said, `You're meant to be able to lift your dress up at any time, and pull down the top, and just have sex.' I thought that was rather a good idea."

"He" was Ossie Clark, legendary fashion designer of the Sixties and early Seventies, who was stabbed and bludgeoned to death two years ago by his lover, Diego Cogolato. The quote is taken from a two-part South Bank Show about Clark that coincides with the publication of his diaries, by Bloomsbury. When he died, Ossie Clark was an embittered has-been: drug-addicted, dirt- poor and forgotten. Now his revival has officially begun.

Part of the lure of the story lies in its supporting cast. Clark knew everyone. When in New York, he hung out with Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Diana Vreeland. He picked up Brian Epstein in an East 33rd Street gay bar and was given Beatles tickets as a present. In London, he made the Mick Jagger stage costumes ("Fitting his crotch in gold leather," his diary drools), including the white dress over white trousers worn for the Stones' concert in Hyde Park. When Mick married Bianca, Ossie did the dress: "He didn't tell me she was pregnant."

Even his driver turned out to be a superstar-in-waiting. David Gilmour schlepped Clark's orange VW van round London in the months before he got the gig as Syd Barrett's replacement in Pink Floyd. When there wasn't anything to deliver or pick up, he'd hang around Clark's shop, Quorum: "Seeing all those glamorous girls come in, the top models of the time, slinking out of their clothes and slipping into something else, it was quite an education for a 21-year-old boy. I met Patti Boyd for the first time then - and all sorts of people."

But there was far more to Clark than a gift for famous friends, a fact plainly illustrated in The South Bank Show by footage from one of his fashion shows, filmed in 1975. By then, Clark was already on the downward slope. His marriage to Celia Birtwell, a fabric designer, had ended in divorce, which devastated him, though it was his own drug-taking - and his homosexuality - that was largely responsible.

His diaries suggest a man gripped by dissolution and despair: "7 July 1975: Overslept 'til 12. Got Rick [his boyfriend] together. Scored..."

"29 September 1975: Thoughts of suicide again. I should be designing black crepe frocks, but I can't. I love Celia so much and I want her back."

Yet the frocks, when they were finally created, were gorgeous, inspiring the models to twirl and play upon the catwalks, just for the joy of wearing them. The suits were cut with an immaculate, fluid elegance. It makes you wonder why anyone thinks the Seventies were tasteless.

Clark's was a northern-boy-made-good, classic post-war success story. He was born during a bombing raid in 1942, to a working-class family from Warrington. In 1962, Ossie was cruised for the first time. A middle-aged gent in a Jaguar slowed down to speak to him as he was walking through Manchester. The Beatles had barely released their first record - it was long before the Sixties proper began. But Ossie was already carrying a shoulder-bag and wearing flared jeans he'd made himself. "You might as well go the whole way and put on a skirt," snapped his father.

Clark's talent took him to London, and the Royal College of Art. There, his obvious gifts, his ebullient personality and his slender good looks were enough to gain him entry into the smartest circles, including the art-world set that revolved around David Hockney.

Later, Clark would say that Hockney "taught me how to see". Hockney, who later painted the famous portrait of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy that hangs in the Tate Gallery, recalls that he was first impressed by the way Clark was able to cut the pattern for a glove direct from a piece of fabric:

"It was like sculpture, as though he could anticipate... how to join something together."

By 1965, David Bailey was shooting Ossie for Vogue. He set up Quorum, with Celia Birtwell and a business partner, Alice Pollock. It was in Radnor Walk, which runs south off the King's Road, not far from Chelsea Town Hall. The shop soon became one of the in-crowd's main hangouts, a dropping- off point for Beatles, Stones and their many assorted dollybirds.

One of the fascinating things in the South Bank Show is the difference between those who survived and those who did not. Celia Birtwell has china- doll looks: blond hair, rosy cheeks, baby-blue eyes. But her descriptions of Clark's decline, and the implacable way in which she continues to detach herself from his problems, reveal the essential ruthlessness of a born survivor. Hockney, too, has a streak of pure Yorkshire grit: he may look Californian, but he's still completely Bradford.

David Gilmour also has strong survival instincts. Over the years, he kept in touch with Ossie Clark, first by providing the music for his fashion shows. Clark was the first designer to treat shows as performances, staging them at venues such as the Royal Court Theatre, with a star-studded audience.

But Ossie's increasing drug abuse, and his inability to cope with the business side of his affairs, led him eventually to bankruptcy. Clark died on 5 August 1996. "I didn't ever think that he would harm himself," says Gilmour. "But his ability to drive other people to the point of violence was quite recognisable. When the news came that Diego had killed him, it wasn't a huge surprise, because of all these other things... that were to do with frustration, bitterness and temper."

In the end, Clark's genius wasn't enough. "You've got to have talent and determination," says Gilmour. "I often think that the people with determination do better than the ones with the talent."

`The South Bank Show: Ossie Clark' is on 8 and 15 November