Celia Birtwell: The return of the material girl

As the wife and collaborator of Ossie Clark, the textile designer helped define London in the swinging Sixties. Then, for nearly 30 years, she turned her back on fashion. Now she has returned to her first love.
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The Independent Online

Look into the soulful eyes of the textile designer Celia Birtwell and you see the weight of history reflected. As wife and creative collaborator of Sixties London's enfant terrible Ossie Clark, Birtwell defined a fashion moment. Not since Dalí collaborated on Elsa Schiaparelli's surrealist couture collections in the Thirties has a design duo been so lionised. Their portrait by David Hockney, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, hangs in Tate Britain, their iconic Sixties and Seventies pieces stand in the world's costume museums, and vintage Ossie Clark is sold at auction today for over £1,000 a garment.

But, as the "poor little rich girl" Doris Duke once said, and the late Princess Margaret knew, "the payback is a bitch, baby". The energy generated by Birtwell and Clark burnt brightly but briefly. A divorce in 1974 was followed 22 years later with the bankrupt Clark's murder and the publication of his lurid memoirs, The Ossie Clark Diaries, in 1998. Celia Birtwell, who has two sons with Clark, retired from fashion after her separation from the designer and channelled her creative energy into interiors fabric design.

For 15 years, Celia Birtwell worked from her Westbourne Park Road fabric shop; nodding to the past in 1999 with a retrospective of Ossie Clark's work shown in his hometown of Warrington. The fashion industry saw the magical hands of Clark crafting Birtwell print into cobweb-delicate chiffon dresses cascading with bias-cut ruffles: as classical as bias-cut Queen, Madame Vionnet and as fresh as current King of the bias-cut, John Galliano. Then suddenly, last summer, designers as diverse as Miuccia Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Clements Ribeiro referenced Celia Birtwell print on the runway for autumn/winter 2002. By spring 2002, Birtwell's stylised flower-printed chiffons were fluttering down the catwalks at John Galliano, Blumarine, Etro, Valentino and Missoni.

In March, the original and still the best – Celia Birtwell – returns to fashion. Her collaborators are Suzanne Clements and Inacio Ribeiro, the married design team behind the London-based own-label Clements Ribeiro and the Paris-based Cacharel. It is for Cacharel, established by Jean Bousquet in 1962 and famed for its playful printed shirts, that Birtwell has designed the prints for autumn/winter 2002.

"Every season I keep a scrap book," says Ribeiro. "In 1997, I found a tear sheet from a Seventies Vogue of a Celia Birtwell printed-chiffon Ossie Clark dress. I found myself transferring it to each new season's scrapbook." This shot, by David Bailey, shows the Clark model/muse Kari-Ann Moller in a Clark chiffon dress emblazoned with Birtwell's Zodiac print. "I never dreamt," says Ribeiro, "that Celia Birtwell would be working with us one day."

Birtwell's reluctance to go back to her first love, fashion, was known in the industry. "We'd heard that Celia couldn't work in fashion after the Ossie years," says Ribeiro. Having collaborated in a personal and professional relationship as intense as that of Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, Birtwell understandably felt sceptical about recreating the magic of that time.

"You've got to remember, it was a different era when I was working with OC," says Birtwell. "Fashion was a lot more playful and innocent then. I could throw rolls of fabric around the studio and, next day, OC would have done the most wonderful things with my prints. We were inspired by each other.

"OC was also a one-off. It was extraordinary. He is one of the only designers who could sketch his work – his vision – and when you'd see the finished garment, it was exactly what he'd put down on paper. The way we worked together was so personal, I was lucky to have such an experience and I didn't believe it could be repeated."

It's been almost 30 years since Clark and Birtwell were setting the world on fire, and in that time the fashion industry has changed into a corporate monster. Designers are brand names used to sell perfume, lipstick and accessories, with the main-line collections being little more than window-dressing. It's a far cry from the artisan Sixties when Birtwell personally printed her fabrics before Clark spun them into fashion gold,then hung out with Verushka, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Marianne Faithful and Twiggy in the Swinging London boutique Quorum. But the coupling of Clements Ribeiro and Celia Birtwell is a kind one. There are parallels. Ribeiro has Clark's charm; Clements his spark.

As a married couple with a child, Hector, Clements and Ribeiro are perhaps the most grounded designers in the industry. Birtwell admired their work and they adore her. Over drinks in Claridge's, all three talk animatedly about the final decisions on colourways and plans for another season working together. "This is not an exercise in nostalgia," says Ribeiro. "We didn't want an Ossie Clark collection for Cacharel. We wanted Celia Birtwell.

"It's not about her archive, either. Inevitably, you'll see her handwriting in new-season Cacharel prints – her mythic-beast motifs, her "quills" and her Desert Bloom design – but in a fresh light. We didn't go to Celia with a story for the collection. We asked her to design prints and the collection was built to complement them."

There is a synthesis between Cacharel and Birtwell. Both share a playfulness and a naive prettiness. As Ribeiro says: "Fashion is now so edgy and conceptual and trying too hard. Celia is outside fashion while also being an iconic figure. It's not so much her past we were interested in as the honesty and consistency of her work, which suits the mood of Cacharel."

The mood of Cacharel also has a hint of naughtiness that's writ large in Birtwell's DNA; something she shares with Clements. Birtwell says of herself: "I'm a bit bossy you know." Working on colourways for Cacharel together, you could imagine sparks flying. "The pleasure is in playing around," says Clements. "There's no time in the industry for play and there should be." Clements says she will experiment with up to 54 colourways before she's satisfied: a process that brings a fresh perspective to Birtwell's work.

After a preview of the selling collection for Cacharel in Paris, Birtwell declared she was delighted with Clements Ribeiro's handling of her prints. Her animal prints are transferred to fine velvets and printed on not-quite-true pinks and powder-blues. The original Zodiac print has been reworked in a fresh colourway on chiffon. The silhouette of Cacharel for autumn/winter 2002 is fluid and light-hearted. The key fabrics are silk satin and georgette, chiffon and wool jersey. Of the silhouette, Clements Ribeiro will only say: "Celia's prints demand movement, so the collection is very fluid." Star pieces will be scarves printed with variations of Birtwell's Desert Bloom, signed "Celia Birtwell for Cacharel".

Though Birtwell is at times bewildered by the machinations of the fashion industry in 2002, she is clearly energised by the experience. "Suzanne and Inacio are very respectful of my work and I'm delighted to be working with the bright sparks of today. Inacio is charming but he knows what he wants and he makes me rise to the challenge. Suzanne is so bright and focused and supportive of what I'm trying to do."

A love-in of this nature isn't uncommon in fashion, but rarely – if ever – has it been so sincere. As Ribeiro says: "We're a family. We're not in show business. We try to be relaxed and unpretentious and we share this attitude with Celia." Of the collaboration so far, he says: "It was an honest proposal and we weren't disappointed". Of the future, suffice it to say, Birtwell is back and, honey, you've been away too long.