Mr & Mrs Clark: Ossie Clark And Celia Birtwell, Fashion And Prints 1965-74 At Fondazione Sozzani (10 Corso Como) in Milan

Mr and Mrs Clark: Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell – Fondazione Sozzani, 10 Corso Como, Milan

As a longtime fan of Ossie Clark and British fashion, I was delighted to be able to attend the exhibition organized by the Sozzani Foundation in Milan under the sponsorship of CNMI (National Chamber for Italian Fashion). The exhibition had previously been held at the Textile Museum of Prato, which took part in the exhibition project as well.

“Mr & Mrs Clark” is the first exhibition in Italy dedicated to Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell, the creative couple who were among the leading figures of British fashion in one of its most prosperous periods, the 1960s and ’70s decades. The exhibition chronicles their artistic journey and explores the brilliance of Celia’s designs, with prints inspired by nature and avant-garde art; Ossie’s talent and mastery of pattern-making and cutting enabled the creation of feminine and sensual clothes.

In the exhibition space at Fondazione Sozzani, it is also possible to admire a number of photos depicting Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell together, as the two were united in both their work and personal lives. Their artistic journey has also been documented in the book Mr & Mrs Clark, which chronicles the artistic and personal partnership of the two designers through essays and interviews, enhancing the beauty of Ossie Clark’s creations with sketchbooks and period photos. In the preface, Carla Sozzani wrote: “Ossie and Celia are also the story of a special alchemy, one of the earliest examples of creative couples who worked together to complement each other in total harmony. Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark are among the famous couples where one can never tell where one’s creativity ended and the other’s began.”

Federico Poletti, curator of the exhibition, also pointed out that “Ossie’s shapes and cuts would not have had the same impact without Celia’s prints”, which is why the two designers’ work is presented together.

The dresses on display come from a variety of sources, such as the private collection of acclaimed costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini and that of Lauren Lepire, founder of the Los Angeles vintage store Timeless Vixen, as well as from the archives of Celia Birtwell and the Clark family.

Sketchbook with designs, 1970, Collection Celia Birtwell
1972 dress by Ossie Clark / Textile designer Celia Birtwell
Lips Dress by Ossie Clark, 1965 (Quorum label, polka dot pattern design)
“Plane Crash” print by Jim Lee, 1969 / Ossie Clark poster, “Target Print” by Celia Birtwell

The curator of the exhibition explained that through extensive and lengthy research, it was possible to retrieve rare materials of great historical and artistic value, which were fundamental in setting up an exhibition that includes 30 iconic dresses from the two designers’ most successful years, seven precious notebooks of Ossie and Celia, editorials taken by leading international photographers, and a series of unpublished drawings and rare memorabilia that also includes some videos featuring Ossie Clark’s fashion shows.

I visited the exhibition with my mother at lunchtime, and it was a privilege to be able to enjoy the exhibition halls alone because the surrounding silence allowed us to immerse ourselves in the creative vision of Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell and to be able to admire and photograph their incredible creations up close, getting in touch with the work of two celebrated designers who helped shape British fashion, as it was for Vivienne Westwood and Mary Quant (I visited a retrospective on the latter a few years ago at the V&A Museum in London and would love to write about it in the future).

The Mr & Mrs Clark exhibition also includes a video interview by Celia Birtwell, in which the designer says, “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. […] With my imaginative sketches and his model-cutting skills, we created a brilliant team that embodied the zeitgeist of young people who wanted to escape the postwar restrictions.” I find it great to be able to work synergistically with someone with whom you have a strong connection even on a personal level; it is rare that this happens but when it does it can lead to excellent results, especially in the arts. Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell are a perfect example of that.

Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark at the apartment in East Putney, 1967, by Norman Bain
1974 dress by Ossie Clark / Textile designer Celia Birtwell (design inspired by Seurat, Kandinsky and musical notes)
1974 Ossie Clark & Ossie Clark for Radley dress / Textile designer Celia Birtwell (Candy Flower design, inspired by Russian art)
Fashion drawing for cocktail dress in velvet and silk organza / country suit in suede and corduroy, Ossie Clark, 1960-65

Journalist Renata Molho wrote in the «Ossie Clark, Silent Revolution» essay: “Together with Birtwell, Clark experimented and invented: we should mention the yellow and orange garments, with reinterpretations of Poiret designs, or the women’s trouser suit, anticipating Yves Saint Laurent’s 1966 Le Smoking.” In fact, fashion historian Judith Watt recounted in an interview that the same trouser suit “had been purchased from Quorum [famous Chelsea boutique for which Ossie Clark designed clothes] in London in 1965 and brought to Paris by some of Yves’s associates. […] Saint Laurent certainly drew inspiration from it.”

The two designers’ creativity, thanks to the revolutionary work done with the prints, became a defining language of the Swinging London era.

An era characterized by renewal in various fields (think of the Beatles and their pop music), but one that saw especially in fashion a reversal from previous decades; accessible fashion becoming a mass phenomenon. Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell are among the most important representatives of this period; it is thanks to Celia’s work as a textile designer that their prints have become iconic. This is due to the sartorial work done by Ossie Clark and his way of enhancing the female body with very tight waist silhouettes, transparencies and plunging necklines.

1974 dress by Ossie Clark / Textile designer Celia Birtwell
Woman’s Waistcoat by Ossie Clark, c. 1966-67 / Snakeskin, suede
Sketchbooks with designs by Ossie Clark, 1969
1968 two-piece suit (jacket and trousers) by Ossie Clark / Textile designer Celia Birtwell
(Chinoiserie-inspired design)

Clark and Birtwell focused on finding new effects for their creations, with 1930s- and 1940s-inspired cuts (such as those of American couturier Charles James, whose retrospective I saw at the Met in New York nearly a decade ago) but experimenting with prints, ranging from floral motifs to stylized geometries, not forgetting the countless amount of art-inspired patterns, including Cubist avant-garde and medieval tapestries.

Ossie Clark was born in Liverpool in 1942 and debuted as a fashion designer in 1964, after graduating from the Royal College of Arts in London. He began designing clothes for the Quorum boutique in Chelsea (one of the busiest in the British art and music scene at the time), of which he became a member; over the years he dressed a large number of celebrities, such as Bianca Jagger and Marisa Berenson, and was also known as “the King of King’s Road.” In 1969 Ossie Clark married Celia Birtwell, who had trained at Manchester Art School before graduating in Textile Design from London’s Royal College of Arts, where the two met. The couple was also portrayed by David Hockney (the painting is on display at the Tate Gallery in London). In the early 1960s, Celia began working as a textile designer, producing Op-Art-style upholstery fabrics. To produce the prints that made her famous, she studied the collections of the V&A Museum at length, focusing particularly on Djagilev’s costumes for Ballets Russes, artistic movements like Cubism and Pointillism, and English medieval tapestries.

The Quorum Boutique, which had become a sort of creative laboratory for British fashion, was later bought by Radley, a clothing manufacturer, for which Clark and Birtwell launched a new, more commercial line.

The défilés of Ossie Clark’s collections (made in collaboration with Celia Birtwell until Fall/Winter 1974) are still remembered as some of the most revolutionary events of the golden years of Swinging London. The two designers were among the first to devise the concept of the fashion show as we know it today.

1968 double face jacket by Ossie Clark / Textile designer Celia Birtwell
Ossie Clark dress with Tulip print by Celia Birtwell, British Vogue, December 1972 / Model photographed by Norman Parkinson
Ossie Clark for Radley, c. 1979 / Textile designer Celia Birtwell
Details of a 1970 Ossie Clark dress / Textile designer Celia Birtwell (black and white geometric pattern design)

I was very happy to be able to attend the retrospective organized by Fondazione Sozzani because Clark and Birtwell’s work had never been exhibited in Italy before. I think they are mostly known by fashion students and people in the industry because they are considered niche designers by the general public (1960s and ’70s British fashion is most often associated with Vivienne Westwood and partly Mary Quant because she was credited with the invention of the mini skirt, which, however, happened at the same time as André Courrèges). Another important factor to remember is that Ossie Clark was the first designer to reinterpret the concept of “occasion dress”; for him, evening gowns could be worn during the day and vice versa.

Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell’s body of work has been widely celebrated over the years, especially on the occasion of the retrospective organized by the V&A in 2003, “Ossie Clark at the V&A,” but I was a child at the time so the exhibition at 10 Corso Como in Milan was the first opportunity for me to see the legendary designer duo’s creations and the artistic genius that characterized them.

Mr & Mrs Clark runs at Fondazione Sozzani (10 Corso Como) in Milan until April 10, 2023.

Additional notes:

Thanks to Fondazione Sozzani staff for providing me with the press kit, which helped me a lot in drafting this article.

All pictures are my own.


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