The Genteel
March 7, 2021



UK high street giant, Debenhams, has recently announced an exclusive concession deal with the re-animated Ossie Clark London, a label that reached the zenith of its creativity and popularity during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Alison Mansell Ltd, owner of Ossie Clark, has hired designer Nicholas Georgiou to go beyond the black lace veil and coax the spirit of "The King of King's Road" back into material form, aiming to tap into the Ossie Clark heritage while adding a modern flourish. The 95-piece collection is affordably priced between £49 to £189, and will be stocked online and in 45 stores nationwide, from February 2013. 

Pieces from the 2008 Ossie Clark relaunch.

The deal is a classic example of sifting through the fashion heritage bequeathed by a bygone era - renowned for its innovation, hedonism and risk-taking creativity - giving it a modern twist and marketing it as the future. A clever concept, for sure, but it does leave an uncomfortable feeling. It's inevitable that fashion will dip into the past for inspiration, but the piecing together of Clark's body of work reminds me of something akin to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: all the pieces go together, but there remains a lack of soul.

Known as the "master cutter," and inspired by his idol, the famous dancer Nijinsky, Clark's clothes were designed to be free moving so not to restrict the female form. His style would go on to define the 1970s, but a reckless lifestyle and short-sighted business choices hastened the decline of his career in fashion. His life ended tragically, when he was murdered by his gay lover, Diego Cogolato, in 1996.

In particular, Clark was famed for the sensual, sinuous silhouette of his era-defining maxi-dresses. Created in collaboration with his print-designer wife, Celia Birtwell, the dresses were worn by fashion luminaries of the time, including Patti Boyd, Bianca Jagger and Anita Pallenberg. Even today, an alluringly rare Ossie Clark original commands high prices in the vintage market. They have also become increasingly popular with models and celebrities such as Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Sienna Miller and Emma Watson.

...the piecing together of [Ossie] Clark's body of work reminds me of something akin to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: all the pieces go together, but there remains a lack of soul.

With the soul of Ossie Clark seemingly alive and kicking, the first opportunistic attempt to spark high street interest in the brand occurred in 2008, at a relaunch curated by designer Avsh Alom Gur. Unfortunately, a less-than-positive response from the press and buyers left the revival twitching on the slab of modern consumer disinterest. Around the same time, another icon of 1960s fashion was reassembled for UK high street consumption, with the House of Fraser relaunch of Biba in 2009.

As Michael Fink, dean at Savannah College of Art and Design School of Fashion and former Saks Fifth Avenue fashion director, told ARTINFO recently, "There is a mystique regarding fashion's past - the nostalgic glow of a particular style of dressing, a particular series of events defining an era, eccentric personalities, incredible workmanship...Certain labels allow us to reminisce about perceived better times or a better life. Labels that have this built-in heritage lure us into a fantasy."

While Ossie Clark London may fit Fink's bill, its overly sentimental yearning for a mythical, golden age - while cynically exploiting Clark's genius - is a regressive step, especially with London's "We don't build houses, we burn them down," mentality, that has given UK fashion its distinctive edgy and innovative reputation. If we are too busy looking backwards, we'll miss out on unearthing the new pioneers who will go on to break the mould - just as Clark did in the 1960s.

Unlike, for example, Alexander McQueen's posthumous re-launch of McQ, which works because there are notions of  "unfinished business" surrounding the legendary British designer whose life ended tragically, Clark's career had a clear beginning, middle and end. That's not to say that Ossie Clark is not relevant to modern fashion. But Clark's designs work best in the appropriate context - within the vintage market.  

Maybe it's idealistic to expect a famous brand, which represents such a pivotal moment in UK fashion history, to remain untainted by modern commercialism. But, there is no guarantee of renewed success - as witnessed by the stop-start response to the glamorous 1970s American disco-era label, Halston (even with the benefits of financial backing from film mogul Harvey Weinstein and the patronage of Sarah Jessica Parker). But the urge to travel back in time is hard to resist, fuelled by a combination of financial opportunity and romanticism.

The dream team: the designs of Ossie Clark 
and Celia Birtwell defined a generation.

Ironically, the true legacy bearers of these once great institutions have reinvented themselves and continue on their respective creative journeys. Clark's design partner-wife, Birtwell and Biba founder, Barbara Hulanicki, have both recently been involved in projects with high street retailers. Hulanicki launched a clothing line with UK supermarket chain ASDA, and Birtwell has retained relevance with a number of high profile collaborations, including a successful capsule collections for Top Shop and a 25-piece women's wear line for John Lewis in 2010. As ever, Birtwell's printed fabrics remain classic and romantic; reminiscent of her days designing for Ossie Clark.

Effectively, in 2013, we will have two famous British fashion labels stalking the streets, like ghostly apparitions awaiting the 1960s revival that is forever "around the corner." Taking up space and staunching the arrival of fresh blood, Ossie Clark London and Biba now represent stagnation, fear of the future and a dearth of imagination - the complete opposite to what these two legendary labels originally stood for, the first time around.



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