There are certain designers so infamous that they have their own cult following, on top of the fame that the brand demands. Ossie Clark is one of them; I have a girlfriend and we spend a good chunk of our weeks DMing Ossie Clark pictures to each other on Instagram. His designs are that iconic, swoon worthy, and shareable.
What should you know about Ossie Clark? That he designed for the rich and famous? That he’s considered responsible for “bohemian” dresses? The Swinging Sixties? That he’s the English answer to YSL? Yes, all of that, and more.
Ossie was born Raymond Clark in England, 1942. He began making clothes for dolls and the neighborhood girls before he was 10. Through the encouragement of the art teacher at this school, Ossie found fashion; and poured over the Vogue and Bazaar his teacher gave him. Ossie also studied architecture, and the fundamentals of proportion, height, and volume would become paramount to his career as a fashion designer. After his basic schooling, Ossie studied at the Regional College of Art in Manchester. (Note, Ossie’s commute to school was so long his mother gave him pills to stay awake, beginning Ossie’s life long struggle with drug use). During his college days at Manchester, he met and fell in love with Celia Birtwell, and became great friends with David Hockney. Both relationships would be profoundly important in Ossie’s life.
After completing school in Manchester, Ossie attended the Royal College of Art in London. Here, Ossie used the influences of pop art and Hollywood Glamour to design a line (first carried by Woodlands 21). Ossie’s career was then on the fast track, he got his first feature in Vogue in August of 65; and was asked by Alice Pollock to be the co-designer at Quorum. Ossie partnered with his muse, and future wife, Celia Birtwell, who did the prints/fabrics while Ossie did the designing/cutting/patterns. Ossie Clark became synonymous with free following, prints, muted colors, crepe fabrics, snakeskin jackets; as well as the celebrities he dressed: Bianca Jagger (her wedding dress), the Beatles, Marianne Faithful, Liza Minnelli, among others.
When you think of Sixities Fashion you may think mod-the miniskirts, the shifts, the go-go boots. Ossie changed that. He designed to flatter a woman’s body. As the Telegraph put it:
“The square cut, mini shift dresses that projected an adolescent, coltish figure, all knees and elbows, gave way to a sinuous shape lines that celebrated women’s curves. The typical Clark gown boasted the sensuousness of the female form: the arched small of the back, the rounded haunch, an impossibly long neck, a rangy thigh, all slip sliding against satin or matte jersey.”
What I think of when I think of an Ossie Clark piece are the details: buttons, sleeves that puff or flare, the illusion of floating but the impeccable tailoring, the feel that the piece could be from the 40s, 70s, or today. Ossie Clark designs are a true collectors item, and make the woman wearing it look exquisite.
Ossie Clark was a “true” artist and creative: obsessed with art and music, not great at business ends, and he was given to bouts of depression (made worse by his drug use). His clothes and line were groundbreaking in many ways: they changed the shape of fashion, his was the first line to feature black models in their runway shows (in the UK), and his love life was the source of great joy and sorrow. Ossie married Celia Birtwell (they would have 2 kids, which by all accounts were the loves of his life), and when they divorced it ruined Ossie in many ways. His line went in and out of bankruptcy; the 70s gave way to Punk Rock and Vivenne Westwood, making Ossie obsolete. He had love affairs with both men and women, and finally seemed to be pulling himself together cutting patterns for Ghost Label, when he was stabbed to death by an ex-lover in 1996.
While his life read like the Hollywoof movies he so loved, what we should take away from Ossie Clark is the love and joy that he put into his collections. You can find Ossie Clark on Etsy, 1stDibs and many high end vintage dealers. The price may be high, but if you get an Ossie, you’re getting a true work of art!