The move to London, with Ossie Clark and Celia now an item, catapulted the ‘fashion dream team’ to the epicentre of the trendy mid-Sixties and early Seventies scene, via their Quorum label and shop on the Kings Road.
“It was my youth and everybody has a youth and I suppose your youth has many qualities” Celia remarks “I’ve tumbled into things, I think, in my life. I’ve been very lucky, I never really knew what I was really going to be doing. I’ve never been that ambitious, I’m quite a homesbody; in fact I like my home a lot.
“But Ossie should have been a rock star because that was the life he wanted to lead” she explains “I liked going to parties when I got there but I was always quite apprehensive. I suppose I am actually quite shy, or brave, or whatever the description could be but I’ve been very, very lucky; and very lucky to find that people actually like what I do.”
People actually raved about Celia’s ‘flower power’ prints and Ossie’s designs, which hit the bohemian moment, as anyone who was everyone wanted to be seen in the floral splashed romantic chic clothes…Keith Richards and Brian Jones wore silks and satins with Celia’s prints, as did Jimi Hendrix, Paloma Picasso, Twiggy and Marianne Faithful. Bianca Jagger wore a Celia print on her wedding night, while Liza Minnelli wore a Celia print shirt in Cabaret, and Jane Birkin and Ali MacGraw were also photographed modelling the clothes.
As an example, Celia’s ‘Mystic Daisy’ print dress alone sold 20,000 copies.
“When I went to London I thought everybody can be anything here, together” Celia recalls “Ossie loved music, and every week he’d bring back an LP with the latest thing on. He hung around with Mick Jagger and The Beatles, and that was his world. I dipped in and out of it. I loved seeing the beautiful girls he chose as models. Pattie Boyd was gorgeous, and there were about four of them who were his favourite girls. Then he put music to his fashion shows and they were like happenings.”
One of the infamous shows was at the Royal Court in London in 1971, which began at 2:30am with Paul McCartney in the audience, while a flavour was given in the German series Der Kommissar…
“I’d go to fashion shows occasionally in Manchester, maybe in Kendal Milne, and the models were very stiff and upright and proper, and way, way away from my lifestyle or what I understood” she says “I used to think ‘Well there’s something else going on…we’re post war kids’. Ossie, for me, got it, and he undid the stiffness and awkwardness and properness. Also, to wear couture you had to be quite wealthy, so when he put a plump person in a lovely dress that did all the right things it was like undoing all that had been done and relaxing everything.
“And then, of course, there was the music” she adds “The whole thing was like a concoction of newness, because, as teenagers, we were the first to pioneer a new way of seeing things. We had a voice and I was part of that which was marvellous really, and then the hippy thing moved in, peace and love, and the whole world was going to be happier…
“…Well, look at us now, the country’s in a really bad way and I’m so sick of the rich being super rich, it’s slightly obscene with the rest of the world just crumbling…”
Throughout Celia’s career, one constant has been good friend David Hockney, who was the only guest, along with Ossie’s sister, when the pair married in 1969. She had met the artist the year before, through Ossie who was studying with him at the Royal College of Art.
Hockney invited Celia to Paris, where he began a lifetime of producing images of her; the most famous being Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy, a huge painting of Ossie and Celia, and their cat, which is still a popular work in the Tate Gallery and was voted in the Top 10 greatest paintings in Britain by Radio 4 listeners in 2005…“Our cat was actually called Blanche but he called it Percy…”
The Ossie Clark dress that Celia wore in the painting was sold at auction in 2015 to the Platt Hall Costume Museum, part of Manchester Art Galleries, for over £11,000, but is not being exhibited at the moment as the gallery is undergoing a renovation.
“We are definitely exhibiting the dress in our new Fashion Gallery from June 2023” states Dr Miles Lambert, curator of the Costume Gallery “The Tate refused to lend the portrait so we will have to make do with a large reproduction to put it into context.”
Celia was Hockney’s paid muse for a while in America and he continues to sketch, draw and paint the Prestwich icon… “I’m very fond of him, I think he thinks I’m funny, and I think I amuse him – he’s been a very good friend to me and he’s always energetic and interesting in his point of view…”
In 1979, Hockney’s cubist portrait of Celia adorned the front cover of Paris Vogue.
Meanwhile, in the mid Seventies, fashion moved onto punk and harsh times as the romanticism that Quorum inspired faded, Ossie and Celia broke up and Clark himself declared bankruptcy in the late Seventies. Ossie died in 1996 but his clothes are the stuff of legend…and Celia, at over eighty years of age, is still wowing the fashion world…
Celia Birtwell: Who is she? What did she change? And just how important is one of the key textile designers in recent history? – click here
Celia Birtwell’s recollections of Prestwich – click here
Celia Birtwell – Still wowing after all these years! – click here