OSSIE CLARK (1945-1996), THE LEGENDARY DESIGNER, NEVER WENT AWAY but suddenly appeared in bursts, just like buses and Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize awards. The exhibition Glam! At Tate Liverpool features David Hockney’s painting of Ossie, Celia Birtwell and Percy the cat; an exhibition at Proud Chelsea is showcasing the life and work of the iconic designer; Debenhams department store has opened an Ossie Clark concession with his designs revived for modern day customers ‘with a Bohemian bent’.
Hmm. While it’s great that this last development might bring Ossie Clark to the attention of another generation, what they will see is a watered-down adaptation of his style in the latest attempt of several doomed enterprises to revive and harness his label and make it mass market.
Genuine Ossie Clark clothes are worn today on the red carpet by stars of television and film, are displayed in museums, hang in the wardrobes of people who bought them when they were young and slim and can’t bear to get rid of them, are treasured as works of art in vintage collections.
In his heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s Ossie Clark was at the centre of Swinging London and dubbed The King of the Kings Road. His clothes were sold at the trendy boutique Quorum where models and rock stars and the beautiful people would flock to buy gorgeous clothes which were the product of his skilled designs and tailoring and Celia Birtwell’s prints. His clients read like a roll call of the key glitterati: Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Patti Boyd, Twiggy, George Harrison, Bianca Jagger, Marie Helvin, Elizabeth Taylor…
Ossie Clark dresses were sumptuous. They fitted perfectly and clung like a second skin. They did not accommodate underwear. Bias-cut, romantic flowing gowns in chiffon, satin, silk, crepe and clinging jersey. Plunging necklines. Scooped necklines. Diaphanous floaty dresses with trumpet sleeves. Dresses held together by wraparound ties or ribbons or tiny covered buttons. Muted colours of cream, moss green, cerise, scarlet, black. Off-beat shades of prune, dead rose, saffron. Romantic flowery prints with hearts and feathers, inspired by illustrated manuscripts, Matisse, Picasso, the Ballets Russes. Bold Egyptian prints that flowed round the body.
The heyday of the glamorous rock and roll lifestyle came to an end and Ossie Clark’s flame burnt out as he descended into poverty and met an untimely and violent death. His star shines on in the magical legacy of his designs.
The Ossie Clark Diaries published by Bloomsbury 1998