Born in Warrington, Cheshire, England in 1942, Raymond Clark’s parents, Anne and Samuel Clark, moved to Oswaldtwistle during the war, hence his nickname, “Ossie”. Ossie’s mother, Anne Grace Clark, was in labour with Ossie for seven days during an air raid in World War II. Anne had been expecting a girl and so had no name picked out for her new baby. She let the midwife name him Raymond. Ossie was the youngest of six children (Gladys, Kay, Beryl, Sammy and John). Ossie and his brother John sang in the church choir at St Oswald’s church in Winwick where Ossie won awards for his vocal talents. Family and friends noted that from a very early age he was “brilliant at doing anything”. Young Ossie would make clothes for his nieces and nephews. He practised tailoring clothing on his dolls and designed swimsuits for the neighbourhood girls when not yet ten years old. The Art teacher at Ossie’s Secondary School recognised Ossie’s creative flair and gave him a large collection of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines. Clark pored over these magazines and absorbed the glamour and cutting edge fashion.
At the age of thirteen Ossie studied architecture in school. He later said that the experience was “invaluable”. The class taught him the fundamentals of proportion, height and volume. He would later go on to use all of these to great effect in his fashion designs. Soon after leaving Beamont Secondary Technical School, Clark attended the Regional College of Art in Manchester, now Manchester Metropolitan University at age sixteen. Ossie had to get up very early in the morning to make the long trip from home to college each day. Anne Clark would give Ossie prescribed pills to keep him awake and alert. This would be the start of a lifelong addiction to both prescribed and illegal drugs. While attending college in Manchester, Clark was introduced to Celia Birtwell by a close friend and classmate named Mo McDermott. The pair started out as just good friends but that friendship soon developed into a love affair. Ossie also became good friends with artist David Hockney during this period. Clark and Hockney took an inspirational trip to New York together while still at college where they made many valuable connections in the fashion, art and entertainment communities. The friends are widely rumoured to have been lovers with a volatile relationship. Clark graduated from Regional College of Art in 1958.
Clark then attended the Royal College of Art in London and achieved a first-class degree in 1965. While attending college in London Celia Birtwell came to live with Ossie in his small Notting Hill flat. Ossie’s degree fashion show at the RCA was a huge success. At this time Ossie’s design style was heavily influenced by Pop Art and Hollywood glamour. The final line-up featured a dress with flashing lightbulbs down the front which was shown in every major newspaper and fashion publication the following day. The fashion press swamped Ossie with requests for photo-shoots and special order garments. In August that year he had his first feature in British Vogue. A popular shop named ‘Woollands 21’ in London’s Sloane Street was the first to begin selling Ossie Clark’s clothing line.
He quickly began to make his mark in the fashion industry, with Alice Pollock’s exclusive boutique Quorum featuring his designs in 1966. Ossie had been introduced to Pollock at his RCA show by Quorum’s backer at the behest of Hockney and so taken with the young designer was she that she immediately decided to bring him in as co designer for Quorum. Ossie presented a collection of white and cream chiffon garments that sold fast. Pollock wanted Clark’s clothes to have a more organic feel and so commissioned Celia Birtwell to produce special textiles for the next collection. In this way, one of fashions most famous collaborations was born: with Ossie Clark designing clothes and Celia Birtwell designing prints. This partnership would last for almost all of Clark’s career in fashion. Author Judith Watt comments: “Celia collaborated with Ossie. This was a joint effort. People say that she was his muse, which indeed she was, but their work absolutely went hand in hand. It was her designs that he used to create his. I think it’s unfair that she not be given that voice”
Ossie was noted, from this period on, for buying six new record albums a week, all from the newest and most popular recording artists. His love of music and art were legendary amongst Ossie’s friends. Also at this time Ossie began to take hard drugs more recreationally with friend and business partner Alice Pollock. “This is when his character began to change” says longtime friend Lady Henrietta Rous. The first full Ossie Clark collection was bought by the Henri Bendel department store in New York. His simple, elegant dresses were widely copied by the designers on Seventh Avenue.
The period from 1965 to 1974 is regarded as his zenith, during which time he had many famous clients. In the late 1960s, Clark hit a rich vein for his flamboyant clothing range. The fashion press dubbed Ossie “The King Of King’s Road”. Clark pronounced himself a “master cutter. It’s all in my brain and fingers and there’s no-one in the world to touch me. I can do everything myself.” Clark’s great idol was the famous dancer Nijinsky and his love of dance inspired his clothes to be free moving and not to restrict the female form. This style of dressing became quite popular in the 1970s thanks in large part to the popularity of Clark’s clothing. Ossie Clark is well known for his use of muted colours and moss crepe fabric. He also designed shoes, paper dresses, and snakeskin jackets.
While Ossie and Alice were great at creating an image and drawing in the rich and famous, they were less successful at managing a business. Many garments were given away to celebrities or just disappeared from the shop. By 1967,Quorum, the partnership between Alice Pollock and Ossie, was deeply in debt and Alice’s financial backer,Mike Armitage,a stockbroker, decided there was little possibility of Quorum ever making a profit and he and Alice agreed to sell Quorum to a large UK fashion house, Radley (run by Alfred Radley). Radley took over Quorum’s debts and put the management onto a sound basis. Alfred Radley was keen to maintain what made Ossie special and so he continued to support Ossie’s aspirations by developing the Ossie Clark brand and funding large annual fashion shows, expanding Quorum’s retail business and distributing Ossie’s dresses to leading retailers around the world through the introduction of the “Ossie Clark for Radley” collections.
In 1967 Clark presented his first fashion show under the patronage of Radley at Chelsea Town Hall for Pathé News. It was a seminal turning point in the history of fashion shows which were never to be the same again. He also showed his first full collection in London’s Berkeley Square. It was also the first British fashion show to feature black models. In 1968 Clark designed his first of many diffusion lines for Radley, “Ossie Clark for Radley” that made his clothes available to a high street clientele.
Clark was not just popular in London, but also in New York and Paris. He dressed the rich and famous who inhabited the beau monde of the late 1960s and early 1970s of London. Clark got in on the ground floor of many of the popular performers and actors of the time period and was accepted in their circles when many other designers were not. This gave him many advantages to dress the rich and famous. Clark made many stage costumes for Mick Jagger, the Beatles, Marianne Faithfull and Liza Minnelli, among others. In 1969, he married Celia Birtwell and had two sons Albert and George, together. Clark had long hoped for a large family of his own and his children were a great joy in his life.
Clark freely adopted the hedonistic lifestyle of the 1960s and 1970s: his drug use greatly impacted on his emotional state and finances. Clark and Birtwell divorced in the 1970s. This started a slow downward spiral for Ossie, who never recovered emotionally from the separation from Birtwell and his two children. With his family structure and work stability now gone, his creative output became strained. However in 1977 Ossie went into business with Tony Calder and Peter Lee and for two years Ossie enjoyed a revival with hugely successful fashion shows, rave reviews and commercial stability. Fashion writer, Ann Chubb wrote ‘ It is great to see him right back on form again after a few years in the doldrums’.
Going into the 1980s, fashion – British fashion in particular – turned towards the new punk rock craze. Clothing from Vivienne Westwood’s shop on the King’s Road became the most popular look and one of Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Scum’ T-shirt text went so far as to include Ossie Clark under the heading ‘Hates’. Ossie Clark’s romantic flowing gowns were no longer in fashion. His fortunes declined to bankruptcy and Clark largely stopped working commercially. Famously devoid of business acumen Ossie blamed his downfall on banks and the taxman’s ruthless insistence on cashing in all his assets. His bitterness at this and a short-sighted determination to sit out the bankruptcy term, along with deep depression, meant he worked only on private commissions which were paid for by barter. A loyal band of famous clients and friends would order a dress and pay for it by loaning a holiday house in the Caribbean or paying for his sewing machine to be repaired.
In 1984 Ossie was persuaded by a friend to go back to work with Radley. He produced some beautiful garments with shoulder details based on sea shells but according to his diaries was then sacked by Radley that same year. A note written by Ossie to the DHSS (pg147) says “I did not leave my position as a dress designer with Firwool of my own accord, as stated overleaf. It was put to me that as my designs weren’t selling they couldn’t continue to invest in me and I was given two weeks notice on the 19th October 1984. I wasn’t offered a choice of continuing to work or not – I was fired.” This version of events is backed up by a friend the artist Guy Burch who recalls that Clark told him Radley had found the complicated shell patterns impossible to make commercially.
Although the 1980s were chaotic and nomadic there were brighter sides to his life charted in his published diaries. In January 1978 he had met his second long term partner Nicholas Balaban who was working as a barman at the Sombrero Club in Kensington. With Ossie’s encouragement Balaban applied to the Byam Shaw School of Art and went on to start his own highly successful fashion business producing printed T-shirts for high street boutiques and multiples. Although most published accounts choose not to pay much attention to Clark’s gay relationships his sexuality was predominantly homosexual. Unfortunately Clarke’s continued erratic behaviour eventually led to the relationship’s collapse in 1983/84. His depression deepened even more as he obsessed over Balaban, trying unsuccessfully to rekindle the relationship. Only with Balaban’s death from AIDS in 1994 and a conversion to Buddhism did he finally begin to rebuild a career and shake off the past. In the early 1990s he trained the designer Bella Freud to pattern-cut and an extremely promising new beginning was the use of Clark’s mastery of pattern cutting chiffon and delicate fabrics by the Ghost label. Clark found their computerised pattern cutter a revelation, able to turn initial ideas into formers almost instantaneously.
In 1996, 54-year-old Ossie was stabbed to death in his council flat in Kensington and Chelsea, London, by his 28-year-old Italian former lover, Diego Cogolato. Cogolato was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and jailed for six years.
- June, 09, 1942
- United Kingdom
- Warrington, Cheshire, United Kingdom
- August, 06, 1996
- United Kingdom
- London, England
Cause of Death
- Stabbed to death
- Kensal Green Cemetery
- Kensal Green, Greater London, United Kingdom
- United Kingdom