Obituary: Ossie Clark

Linda Watson
Thursday 08 August 1996 23:02 BST

Ossie Clark, dressmaker extraordinare, was that rarest of breeds: a male fashion designer who understood, instinctively, the female anatomy. His cutting skills - legendary in fashion circles - were a consequence of his natural talent at translating the curves of a woman's body into cloth. His clothes were floaty, romantic, completely sexy, with plunging necklines, nipped-in waists and with a unique structure which was the result of freehand scissorwork.

Clark was unfazed by dressing any kind of figure - even women who were on the verge of giving birth. "Comfort," he once said simply, "That is the most important thing".

Born into a large working class family in Oswaldwistle (hence the nickname), at secondary school he was encouraged by his schoolmaster to study American fashion glossies instead of academic text books, and eventually his rise, via the Royal College of Art, to become one of the most significant and talented fashion designers of modern times.

His meeting (at Salford School of Art) and subsequent marriage to the textile designer Celia Birtwell was a turning point in his life. Their extraordinary collaboration of exqusite cut and beautiful cloth became the complete antithesis of synthetic Sixties fashion. "Without doubt, he did his best work with Celia", said the textile designer Bernard Neville, who taught Clark at the Royal College. "They simply sparked each other off."

Always at the centre of social activity, even as a student, Clark became friends with his fellow students David Hockney and Patrick Proctor.

The Summer before his final collection at the Royal College of Art, Hockney and Clark drove across America, meeting Brian Epstein in a New York nightclub and returning with a roll of swirling black-and-white "op" fabric which was to become the centrepiece for his final collection.

He graduated in 1961 with a First, a double-page spread in Vogue, rapturous reviews and immediately joined forces with Alice Pollock who ran the ultra- chic Quorum boutique on the King's Road. Clark had a design room above the shop, while Celia worked from home designing the textiles he used for his clothes. Quorum's customers became walking advertisements for Ossie Clark's ingenuity - amongst them, Bianca Jagger ("a wonderful bosom") and Patti Boyd, who he said "had ankles like glass". Clark and Pollock revelled in the social connections. Clark and Birtwell were immortalised in the 1960s Hockney painting Mr & Mrs Clark and Percy - today one of the best-selling postcards in the Tate Gallery.

A long-running collaboration with the Rolling Stones was triggered off when Clark was introduced to Mick Jagger in Quorum. Jagger later visited his flat and danced energetically around while Clark sketched. Long before the popularisation of Lycra, he concocted the idea of jumpsuits for Jagger ("his road manager loved that," said Clark, "because you could just chuck them in the washing machine after each show").

Clark was at the heart of what has become known as the Swinging Sixties. His and Celia's shows were the precursors to the now familiar pairing of pop and fashion. A familiar sight at them were the Beatles in the front row with Patti Boyd, George Harrison's girlfriend, modelling.

As the Sixties and Seventies progressed the age-old fashion scenario - zero business sense mixed with blinkered creativity - marked the beginning of Clark's downfall. In 1975, Radley ready-to-wear attempted to translate Clark's designs from couture to mass production, and failed miserably. Years later he commented: "I just turned around, and everything was gone." Declared bankrupt in 1983, after divorce from Celia in 1975 and prolonged drug dependency Clark suffered a nervous breakdown from which he struggled, but never quite recovered. His two sons by Celia, Albert and George, were, he said, "the love of my life".

A comeback was tentatively attempted in the Eighties, using Marie Helvin and Jerry Hall on the catwalk, but it dissolved through lack of finance and press interest.

"He never found his Pierre Berge," said the fashion writer Jane Mulvagh. "In many ways he is like Yves Saint Laurent in temperament, but lacked the emotional and financial backing."

Broken and disillusioned, in later years Clark was largely shunned by the fashion establishment (with the noteable exception of the Herald Tribune's fashion editor Suzy Menkes who collected his clothes and made a point of introducing him to a party she held for Christian Lacroix.).

Nonetheless Clark continued to make dresses for special clients amongst them, Jose Fonceca, a close friend and head of Models One.

Clark was a first in many ways: the first to analyse archive material and interpret it into fashion design (a practice now de rigueur for fashion students), the first to cross the line between fashion and rock, the first male designer really to understand what women want to wear.

He was responsible for the popularisation of the motorcycle jacket, hotpants, the maxi coat. Although known for his work with leather and snakeskin, his forte was his unique handling of romantic - and notoriously difficult - fabric such as crepe, satin, and silk chiffon.

At the turn of the Nineties, Clark's clothes were already becoming collectors items with the Ossie/Celia collaborations the most sought-after.

Decades after his last collection, women who had tasted the Ossie Experience are still waxing lyrical. Above all, they associate his label with seduction. Candida Lycett Green, an Ossie Clark aficionado, once said: "In a Bill Gibb I would feel like the Odeon cinema, but in Ossie Clark, the reaction from men was just unbelievable."

Linda Watson

Raymond ("Ossie") Clark, fashion designer: born Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire 1942; married Celia Birtwell (marriage dissolved 1975; two sons); died London 6 August 1996.

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