Ossie Clark & Celia Birtwell

Ossie Clark’s revolutionary designs in the late 1960s garnered him the title ‘King of King’s Road’, but the boundaries of he and his wife Celia Birtwell’s influence stretched far beyond the famous West London street. Not only did ‘Mr. and Mrs. Clark’ define an era in British history, but to this day their works continue to influence women’s fashion worldwide.

The subversive spirit of their works is epitomised by their close friend David Hockney’s infamous portrait of the couple. The living room of the Notting Hill townhouse in which they pose would traditionally have been regally and heavily decorated, instead we are met with the couple casually lounging barefoot with modern furniture and ornaments sparsely dotted across the floor of the room.

Celia Birtwell Ossie Clark
Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark, ph. by Norman Bain

This daring modern outlook is reflected in the couple’ s designs; Celia’s bold Picasso and Matisse-inspired prints, which were magicked into graceful silhouettes by Ossie, borrowed qualities from the styles of the 30s and 40s, yet the end products were something entirely original.

The presentation of the garments employed a similar strategy. Staging shows in grand old venues such as the Royal Albert Hall or the Royal Court Theatre, Ossie filled these events with celebrities rather than PR or buyers, and let his models dance down the runway to scores composed by Pink Floyd and the like. 

Furthermore, the broader social context of this couple hailing from the north coming down to London and rewriting the rules of fashion embodied the zeitgeist of the times and their rapidly changing social politics. Ultimately, masters of the arts are made when originality and beauty come together, and the iconic designs of Ossie and Celia represented the perfect marriage between these two qualities.

Text by Antonio Moscogiuri

David Hockney Mr and Mrs Clark
David Hockney painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1971

Love for nature and art: in conversation with Celia Birtwell

Celia Birtwell‘s education began at the Salford Art School in Manchester, where she earned a degree in Textile Design before moving to London in the early 1960s, where she produced the first fabrics for Op-art style furnishings. She was impressed by the exhibitions and collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, in particular by Leon Bakst and Sergej Djagilev’s costumes for the Russian Ballets and the art of the historical avant-garde. These designs, together with her love of nature passed down by her father, were fundamental inspirations for her path.

Celia’s style plays on the unpredictability of combinations: a mix of flowers and stylized leaves reminiscent of Botticelli, sometimes combined with geometric elements or references ranging from medieval English tapestries to Cubism and Pointillism. Her fabrics are made with a particular technique called discharge printing: the design is made on already-dyed fabric using a bleaching agent that removes the background color only in the part to be printed, thus creating the design by subtraction. 

Celia Birtwell, Ossie Clark

The starting point for her prints are precisely her illustrations, preserved in the precious sketchbooks on display. As Celia herself recounts: Drawing was natural and I found it almost therapeutic. I started from defining the face that had to have personality, otherwise I wouldn’t continue

After the autumn/winter collection of 1974, Ossie and Celia went down different paths, continuing their work independently. Celia embarked down a path of interior design, developing collections for the home and collaborations with fashion brands thanks to an aesthetic consistency which, looking back, always remains current.

I met Celia at her London home where she also keeps her archive. She told me about the incredible adventure with Ossie Clark, life partner (with whom she had two children) and at work.

“It was the kind of marriage of the two ideas, and it was a great fusion”

How did you first meet Ossie?

I studied at Salford Art School while Ossie was at Manchester College of Art. A great friend of mine, Mo McDermott, introduced me to him. He was quite eccentric with a Beatle haircut and a pullover in brown leather with a V-neck. He was very stylish. And I came down for summer holiday to London, with the intention of going back to Manchester, and I never went back. Ossie said he had a little flat in Lafbrook Road, off Lafbrook Road, above a bicycle shop. So he said why don’t you come and stay with me there and the rest is history.

How was your professional collaboration?

It was curious because I’d only done textile design and he was a mastercutter anyway. My first memories was always keeping my sketchbooks going because I’d always kept the sketchbooks which he would look at and I guess his work was very structural. He was great at making – three-dimensional – shapes, which I’ve never been able to accomplish. I do flat patterns. I can’t draw in three dimensions and so he could make shapes and volume which I think is a talent which I don’t have.

My work was possibly more fantasy-like and will never be constructed because I wouldn’t have been able to make them work. He would look at my drawings and then he would soften up his broader and hard-edged line that he used to have in his drawings even and so he could encapsulate my kind of fantasy drawings and make them real. So that was the kind of marriage of the two ideas, and it was a great fusion.
I didn’t know designers before him but he obviously looked at 1930s V&A and people and looked at people drawing up working on the bias. And he could do all that on his own. 

Ossie Clark dress
Ossie Clark, Parrot, 1968, ph. by Jim Lee (©Jim Lee)

“Ossie’s clothes were beautifully cut and very feminine”

What is your first memory of Alice Pollock?

He met her outside the Albert Hall and told me: I’ve met a woman who shares the same birthday as me, June the 9th 1942, and she wants to do a collection with me. So, I went to a tiny boutique in Chelsea where she’d made clothes out of lace curtains. Ossie went in there and just showed a bit of his magic. She could see immediately that he had a very unusual talent. 

What could be Ossie’s most iconic dress?

There’s so many to choose from but I’m proudest of the ones with my prints on. He could make a plump woman look as well as a slim model shaped person because he knew all about structure. Ossie also knew how to do like a Botticelli dress like the one I wore when we got married. He made me lots of great skirts and little sweet jackets that I could zip myself up into. The shapes were quite controlling but they didn’t feel like corsets, in fact they were very feminine and never vulgar which was a bonus.

“For his fashion shows, Ossie created a vibrant multicultural show and started off a movement”

How did catwalk shows changed in his days?

He was the first person to put music to a fashion show and use people from different backgrounds to perform, including black and oriental models. During the 50s, when I was teenager, catwalk shows were very awkward and proper instead, people would walk on the stage rather correctly. Ossie created a vibrant multicultural show and started off a whole movement. Music was also a big part of that. He was great friends with Rolling Stones, John Lennon and George Harrison as we were all starting off at the same time. People always say “you must have had a great time in the 60s” and it was actually true.

What do you think about Ossie’s muses? 

His choice in models was really inspirational. Gala Mitchell was one of my favorites but I also liked Pattie Boyd and Kari-Ann Jagger. They stayed fairly loyal to him though he was difficult to work with. I think he would have been happier as a pop star because in fashion you have to keep going all the time. So, when he got rather famous, he should have had somebody looking after his business properly but he became very arrogant and nobody could have controlled him. As his caring side diminished, I got fed up with it. I think he was like those stars that shine bright but they never last too long. 

“We might say that Ossie’s Clark were quite classic and timeless in a way, but they were never vulgar”

How did you start creating a new collection?

He’d let me use whichever print I wanted. I’d go to the printers and choose an assortment of different fabrics, then I’d drive back and take them to his studio. Sometimes he’d phoned me or sent me a telegram to tell me they were beautiful and he would start working. He’d be so excited about a new sleeve or a new way of cutting a top. I really liked that part of the process because that’s when he was the most creative. He also worked with this wonderful person called Kathleen Coleman who would stand by him like a saint to develop the collection.

Which is the feature that made Ossie’s fashion unique?

Ossie’s clothes were beautifully cut and very feminine. We might say that they were quite classic and timeless in a way, but they were never vulgar, which means that they used to produce photographs of his transparent clothes with slight bosom showing. This is true for The Sun newspaper. The press was very enthusiastic and jumped on slightly bosomy girls who wore transparent blouses.

“I loved printed because I could experiment with color”

How did you work on prints? Why are they still modern today?

All the chiffons were printed at a place called Ivo prints and that’s where I worked all of my career.The technique I used was called pigment printing. Pigment printing means printing on the table and, if it’s chiffon, you have to pull it off because it sticks to the table. We wouldn’t be allowed to do it now because the inks and everything we use would dye. It might be used for furnishing fabrics but not for dress fabrics since techniques have changed so much.

When I printed at this place called Ivo Prints in South Wall, which is in London. I loved that part of the process because I could experiment with color. I had a sample table where I could try all the colors and that was a very creative period. I take credit for being modern because my prints have got an innocence that is also part of me. Mystic daisy was created in five minutes and Al Radley used to say “just bake more mystic daisies”. 

Jim Lee Ossie Clark
Ossie Clark, Plane Crash, ph. by Jim Lee (©Jim Lee)

How did you start working with Alfred Radley?

When Ossie had a studio in Burnsall Street in Chelsea, Alice Pollock met Alfred Radley – he was known as Al Radley – and immediately realized his talent. I suppose he was from the rag trade and had a big soft spot for Ossie. He thought he could do a diffusion line under his name and they both could benefit from it but Ossie never really liked him. When Al Radley took him to Japan, Ossie stayed in bed at the hotel the whole time. However, Al Radley had great respect for Ossie and would have done anything to make him work.

“Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy was such a big part of my life and I think it was marvelous to be the muse”

What about your friendship with David Hockney?

Moe McDermott, my darling friend from Salford, introduced me to David Hockney when he was doing his final year degree show at the Royal College of Art but I just said hello at that time. David had to take another look at me because I was friend with Peter Schlesinger, who came over to England to live with him, and he found me amusing. That was the start of our friendship. He took me to New York, Los Angeles, and later on we spent three months in a rented house in Malibu. Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy was such a big part of my life and I think it was marvelous to be the muse. We borrowed the painting when I did a show with Ossie in Warrington, which is where he comes from. It was memorable.

Tell us about The Biggest Splash.

It started off as a documentary about David Hockney’s career when he was breaking up with Peter Schlesinger. When I had to read the lines, it was quite intrusive for me because Jack, his director, turned it into an unhappy love story. I remember saying to David “this film might be a big movie” but he thought he wouldn’t be going anywhere. The rest is history.

Ossie Clark Celia Birtwell exhibition
Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell, exhibition at Prato Textile Museum

What is your opinion about Ossie’s diaries?

When I went to Bloomsbury, where the diaries were produced, I was very poor. I looked at them and I thought they were so personal that I would never have let them be released. A great friend of Ossie’s called Henrietta Rouse edited them. I never agreed to them being released because it was a private part of Ossie and I felt that she didn’t read through them. I’ve always thought they were a big mistake because I want him to be remembered for his wonderful talent as a fashion designer.

“I’ve always thought Ossie’s diaries were a big mistake because I want him to be remembered for his wonderful talent as a fashion designer”

How was life after the divorce? 

After I finished with Ossie in the late middle 70s, I did part-time teaching but, unless I’d had wonderful students who would have benefited from my knowledge, I wanted to do my own thing. So, I managed to save enough money and opened a little shop in Westbourne Park Road in Notting Hill where I worked for 25 years.

At the very beginning, I thought I’d do fabrics both for fashion and home. Then, I realized that I’d have a lot more time for my sons if I focused on home because fashion is a full-time energy engaging career. When my daughter in law Bella took over the shop, we started working with big companies like Millet or Boots and eventually the shop became a studio. In my life I had a few boyfriends before I met Andy. He’s not in fashion at all, which is probably quite refreshing. Now I’ve got gorgeous grandchildren that I adore and I can say that I’ve been a very lucky person.

What are your happiest memories of Ossie?

I’ve got quite a few happy memories of him. We had a lot of fun when we were younger: we’d go to parties together, we’d go to antique markets and buy ridiculous things, we even bought a house we couldn’t afford. Actually, I never lived in that house because he told my mother it had to be in his way, so I didn’t move in. Once we went off to Granada in a silver Buick car and we drove through the mountains at night playing music as loud as you can imagine. There were many happy times but then, alas, there were a lot of unhappy ones.

Text by Federico Poletti

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Opening image: Ossie Clark, Plane Crash, ph. by Jim Lee (©Jim Lee)

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