When London was at its swinging-est, designer Ossie Clark (1942-1996) was the cock of the walk along King’s Road. Inspired by Nijinsky, Clark was among the first fashion designer to carry himself like a pop star and his clients were of that same milieu: Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Julie Christie, among others of this stature. PKM’s fashion whiz Ingrid Jensen examines what made Ossie the “King of King’s Road” and what led to his tragic downfall.
He had been stabbed a total of 37 times and had his skull beaten to a pulp with a terracotta pot. The sight was enough to sicken even the hardened London policemen who answered the summons to the Holland Park council flat in which 54-year-old Ossie Clark’s body was found. Twenty-eight-year-old Diego Cogolato, Clark’s former lover, had stabbed him in an amphetamine-fueled hallucination in which he thought he was the Messiah and Clark was Satan. Cogolato was apprehended for the murder and sentenced to six years in prison. It was 1996, more than a quarter of a century after Clark’s artistic heyday, when he had reigned as the King of King’s Road, the fashion designer revered and beloved above all others by the crème de la crème of Swinging London.
It was a horrifying end to a life that had once seemed touched with supernatural charm. On his daily walks to work in the late 1960s, Clark had frequently been mobbed by delighted schoolgirls who were sure that he was George Harrison, and when he denied it, the girls remained positive that he was George. It only made sense for the Quiet Beatle, the Dark Horse of the Fab Four, to deny his fame. But he wasn’t George, he was Raymond Clark, generally known as “Ossie,” a 25-year-old fashion designer who had recently graduated from the Royal College of Art.
Soon after his graduation, Clark formed a partnership with the textile designer Celia Birtwell (whom he had met at school and later married) and the designer Alice Pollock. The trio merged their collective efforts into the creation of a boutique called Quorum. Situated on Radnor Walk in Chelsea, not far from the famed King’s Road in the heart of the newly “Swinging” London, its popularity was immediate. Brian Jones lived in an apartment directly over the shop—for easy access to his retail therapy habit.
Celia Birtwell began the group’s design process by making concept sketches of what she called her “dream girl,” a curvaceous Pre-Raphaelite woman wearing frilly bohemian dresses in vivid floral prints. (Besides being a highly respected textile designer, Birtwell was one of David Hockney’s chief muses and often posed for him.) Once Birtwell had refined her ideas for the textile print, Ossie sketched and sewed dresses based on the patterns of fabric she had produced. Alice Pollock had her own line that was mixed with Ossie’s clothes on the runways, and she also helped with technical construction. Ossie had a genius for understanding the mathematical elements of clothing design (in school, geometry had been his best subject) and he was influenced by the great designers of the 1930s, like Madeline Vionnet and Charles James, whose artistic principles had revolved around the use of geometry to create clothing that both looked and felt incredible on the body.
Brian Jones lived in an apartment directly over the shop—for easy access to his retail therapy habit.
Despite taking cues from the past for his design aesthetic, Ossie was a trailblazer. He was one of the first designers to behave as though he were a rock n’ roll star, an act that ultimately unleashed a wave of fresh hell into an industry already fraught with ego. Dressed in Fair Isle sweaters knitted by his mother, skintight trousers, his signature single-lapelled shirts, and patchwork snakeskin belts, Clark sewed clothes that were the toast of the in-crowd of London. He made a matching satin top and trouser set for Marsha Hunt, a snakeskin coat for Twiggy and velvet jumpsuits for Mick Jagger. He made a two-piece suit of rare python skin for Marianne Faithfull, who shared it with Anita Pallenberg. He also dressed Brit Ekland, Penelope Tree, and Julie Christie (who once brought Warren Beatty into Quorum to check out Ossie’s brilliance.)
Ossie Clark Fashion show at the Revolution Nightclub, 1968, Patti Harrison on the runway, John & Yoko in the audience:
Marianne Faithful, a longtime client of Ossie’s, once described to an interviewer the first time she tried on one of his creations: “…I put on one of those dresses. He made me take off my bra, my knickers and everything. I said, ‘How do you expect me to go out like this? What are the instructions?’ And he said, ‘You’re meant to be able to lift your dress up and pull the top down and have sex anywhere.’ ” (Faithfull brought her boyfriend Mick Jagger to Quorum one day, only to have Mick greet Ossie by sticking that famous tongue through the parted curtains of the dressing room.)
Clothing is connected with the art of movement, of dance and physical deportment. The only clothes that are truly successful are those that appear harmonious with the body of the wearer.
He was one of the first designers to behave as though he were a rock n’ roll star, an act that ultimately unleashed a wave of fresh hell into an industry already fraught with ego.
One of Ossie’s heroes was the mad ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and the freedom of movement Ossie’s designs were partly inspired by costumes worn by Nijinsky. He also took inspiration from the slinky bias-cut evening gowns of Hollywood in the 1930s, and the shoulder-padded, knee-length silhouette of wartime dresses. At the time, Ossie explained: “I found the mini skirt restrictive. With the bias cut you could end up with the most extraordinary patterns…” He often asserted that designers could sketch “until they were blue in the face,” but what mattered was not mass production or a silhouette no one had seen, but quality construction. His knowledge of dance and costume history helped him to create clothes that did not restrict or limit the mobility of the body. “It’s all in my fingers and my brain,” he explained. “I’m a master cutter. I’m king of the scissors.”
Ossie Clark Runway Show at the Revolution, with models Donyale Luna (the first Black model on a Vogue cover) and Anita Pallenberg:
The level of freedom the models displayed on Quorum catwalks was hitherto unheard of. A stiff walk around a small room for the private benefit of a dozen wealthy clients had been the previous norm. Quorum helped to pioneer the idea of fashion shows as theatre. Through the thin curtain that divided the audience from backstage, Ossie’s silhouette could be seen, cigarette in one hand and needle and thread in the other, helping the models into his creations. Fans and clients waved at the glimpses of him they received as the curtain parted and each model spun out onto the floor. The catwalk music was always cutting edge, something shiny-new and shocking; Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was a favorite, and the slinky, seductive lyrics set to coffee-shop jazz were the perfect foil to the high energy of the shows.
Ossie Clark & Alice Pollock Fashion show, January 1968, predicting the ‘Total Look’ for summer. George Harrison and John Lennon in the audience:
Ossie Clark’s shows were particularly inclusive of Black models in a time where catwalk models hardly varied from the dull vanilla. There were models who swayed and bounced with a healthy hippie joie de vivre, and there were models who slithered down the runways, carefully, as though they were made of glass, pupils dilated in wide-set, frozen eyes—a sensitivity to noise, color, movement that suggested the effects of the mescaline taken backstage. Barefoot dancing and endless can-cans soundtracked to James Brown records were the order of the day. (To his favorite models, Ossie Clark would gift dresses with tiny pockets he made specially to hide joints.)
Manolo Blahnik designed some of his first shoes especially for Clark’s runways (apple-green suede sandals that laced up the ankle, with an appliqué cluster of cherries.) Blahnik once said of Ossie’s work: “He created an incredible magic with the body and achieved what fashion should do—produce desire.”
Sometimes each girl danced while holding out a card printed with the number of the ensemble she was wearing. In the guests’ programs the number of each ensemble was listed in the order they appeared on the catwalk along with the price. The dresses sold well, but Ossie was not a businessman. He was happily oblivious to money matters, spending absurd amounts on drugs, records, and a limousine with embroidered cushions and a stereo system. The clients he usually showed the most favor to were young and newly famous, with only a cursory knowledge of finance and little interest in paying their bills on time—or at all.
Early on in his tenure at the boutique, Ossie made a blunder that had repercussions his entire career. After discovering that Yves Saint Laurent had sent spies into Quorum to copy his designs, Ossie publicly insulted him. As a result of Ossie’s insults, no couture house would work with him, and no one in the fashion world of continental Europe would sponsor him. The chronic lack of money necessitated the sale of advertising space at his shows, which distressed Ossie no end.
Ossie Clark & Alice Pollock, 1969, clothes designed for ‘Ravers’:
Bianca Jagger commissioned him to make her dress for her 1971 marriage to Mick Jagger in Saint Tropez, but the frock no longer fit properly on the day of the ceremony, and she resorted to a simple white suit designed by Yves Saint Laurent. Ossie missed out on this would-be publicity blessing, but shortly after the wedding, Mick got in touch. He commissioned an array of slinky velvet jumpsuits for the Rolling Stones’ forthcoming Exile on Main Street tour, including a pearlescent gold leather number with beaded fringe and corset-lacing that Ossie had to be on hand to lace Jagger into. When Jagger appeared on the cover of Life magazine in July of 1972, he was wearing one of Ossie’s designs: a white velvet lace-up jumpsuit studded with silver grommets and sequins and belted with a red silk sash.
With the advent of punk in Britain circa 1978, Ossie’s diaphanous gowns went out of style and he was left bankrupt and out of work. Various partnerships designing for labels other than his own fell through and eventually he worked only on a barter system—sewing clothes for clients in return for somewhere to crash for a week, or for money to repair his sewing machine.
In the early ’90s, many young designers turned admiring eyes to his talent and raucous, hedonistic lifestyle. Other than an occasional nod by one of the new guard of designers (his aesthetic, and Celia’s “dream girl” approach was emulated by the label GHOST, and he taught Bella Freud how to pattern-cut) Ossie remained largely forgotten, living and working in the shadow realm. At the time of his death in 1996, his designs had yet to make the resurgence in popularity they have today.
I once had the chance to sink a month’s pay (albeit, part-time coffee shop dishwasher pay) into a dress he’d made, a sea-glass green silk crepe frock with dainty cloth-covered buttons and foamy silk frills. I’m still kicking myself for not buying it. A month’s pay is considered a bargain for one of Clark’s creations, these days. The limited supply is in high demand, especially among supermodels and film stars such as Naomi Campbell, Emma Watson, and Kate Moss.
I think the desire for Ossie’s designs is not entirely due to the clothes (beautiful though they are.) Sometimes I think it’s about the place in time that they evoke. It’s the connotation of the clothes having been worn in an atmosphere that no longer exists, nor will ever exist again, that seduces buyers. The previous owner might have worn the frock to an acid-drenched dinner party at John Lennon’s house, or had the fragile silk-covered buttons undone by Mick Jagger’s wandering eyes. Marsha Hunt might have worn it to a Hair afterparty.
The mystery and romanticism surrounding garments designed by the duo of Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell remains haunting and inescapable. To use his own words, Ossie could “…dream a dress and make it real.” And what is a dream made real but a dream itself? A bit of magic made all the more beautiful by its obvious impermanence, its unbelonging in our cold and harried world.
“Fashion is about taking one out of reality, and this is what he achieved.”
—Manolo Blahnik, on Ossie Clark