European Fashion Heritage Association

Journal Exhibitions

Swinging Fashion, with Love: ‘Mr. & Mrs. Clark Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell. Fashion and Prints 1965-1974’

European fashionfashion exhibitionLondon fashion

An astonishing creative partnership explored with an exhibition and a book

‘The king of King’s Road’ – this is how Raymond ‘Ossie’ Clark was dubbed by the fashion press after presenting his revolutionary collections to the London crowd. His recognisable designs were desired by the ebullient youth that walked the streets of the city from the late 1960s, worn by celebrities as Anita Pallenberg and Bianca and Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful and Liza Minnelli. A huge part of this success was due to Ossie’s partner Celie Birtwell: the woman who turned his creations into unique garments thanks to her original prints and textile designs.

The relationship is explored in the project “Mr. & Mrs. Clark. Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell. Fashion and Prints 1965-1974” shared between the Prato Textile Museum and the Sozzani Foundation, that takes the form of an exhibition and a book.  The exhibition, curated by Federico Poletti, counts for sketchbooks, photos, numerous unpublished drawings, magazine shootings taken by leading international photographers, memorabilia and, of course a selection of 30 original garments sourced from the collection of Massimo Cantini Parrini, Lauren Lepire of the Timeless Vixen shop in Los Angeles and Celia Birtwell and the Clark family.

“Ossie could have been an architect. He was great at creating three-dimensional shapes, which I could never do. I create flat designs and he could create shapes and volumes…Ossie was perhaps the first to put music in a fashion show, involving models of different ethnicities, interesting people from all over, dancing during the show. A multicultural phenomenon for the time that started a whole movement.” This is how Birtwell herself describes their working relationship, which began when Celia and Ossie met at the Regional College of Art in Manchester.

From early on it was clear that fashion was probably one of the main ingredients of the success of their union. After college, they moved together to London and, with Celia designing fabrics and Ossie cutting garments that would ‘respond’ to the shape and movements of the female body, they came to define an era.

Between 1965 and 1974, the Clark style was defined by slinky, second-skin dresses that were supposed to be worn ‘with no underwear’, as many wearers recall, and incredible prints inspired by Celia’s interests: from Art Deco to Leon Bakst and Sergei Djaghilev, from medieval English tapestries to Cubism and Pointillism. Clark’s interest in historical garments and fashion creators led him to experiment with cuts that payed homage to Madeleine Vionnet and Charles James, but adapted to the scenario of late 1960s London: a ‘swinging’ atmosphere where liberation and freedom were definitely the main keywords.

What the exhibition and book project really highlights is the value of collaboration within fashion, considered a co-creative and evolving process, and the importance of sharing ideas to create something new and able talk volume to an ever-changing social scenario. As Suzy Menkes writes in the book connected to the show, edited by Silvana Editore:

“Together, the young and artistic couple produced images for a rapidly changing society and created a new design epicentre in West London. Portobello Road was where the “youth generation” was beginning to seed and grow. … It was Ossie’s skill that pushed fashion forward, “simply looking at a drawing and turning it into a wonderful toile,” as Celia put it, adding,“with my fantasy-styled sketchbook drawings and pattern cutting skills, we made a brilliant team that caught the zeitgeist among young people wanting to escape the strictures of the post-war period.”

The exhibition is on view from January 16 to April 10, 2023 at Fondazione Sozzani, Corso Como 10, in Milan.