Ossie Clark: If it’s not vintage, it’s not Ossie

1960s, 1970s, british boutique movement, Ms Peelpants' rants, ossie clark

Ossie Clark, 1969

I’m afraid I simply cannot bite my tongue and let this go. It feels like barely a moment since I was last ranting about Ossie Clark relaunches, although in fact it was back in 2008. Back then, we were fobbed off with tales of ‘Houses’ and quality and how nobody was just going to copy Ossie’s original designs. So how long did that relaunch last? Three seasons. And what were the clothes like? Ebay is currently flooded with these lousy scraps of fabric bearing the  name of a man who had nothing to do with them.

Now here we are again. Ossie Clark at Debenhams. You might wonder why I didn’t kick up an angry song and dance about the House of Fraser usage of the Biba brand for purely commercial ends. To be honest, like many people I have something approaching Biba relaunch fatigue. Frankly I’m almost at the point of vintage fatigue, thanks to the endless pilfering of ‘inspirations’ which are frequently little more than duplications (see Kate Moss for Topshop… in fact, see Topshop. Full stop.) and the, albeit fair enough, archive collections by Laura Ashley and River Island’s Chelsea Girl. I may or may not have walked past a House of Fraser store window, decked with faux Biba, and flipped the finger. It didn’t seem worth blogging about though. I just sit and judge from a distance.

Original Ossie, early Seventies

Back to the matter at hand, however. Ossie Clark at Debenhams? What next? Thea Porter at Boohoo.com? Bill Gibb at ASOS? Why have the rights to the Ossie Clark name once again been sold to someone thoroughly undeserving (this time to Alison Mansell Ltd)? Why is the identity of a dead man being stolen to sell cheap, nasty, derivative clothes for the profit of big business? Why is nobody in the fashion world questioning it?

On both Vogue.co.uk and Elleuk.com, press releases were regurgitated with fervour. Cosmopolitan got it hideously wrong with talk of ‘boho hippy chic’ (do some research and learn some new words…). The Debenhams blog piled on the insults by not even being able to spell Ossie’s name correctly. Clark. Not Clarke. I repeat, do some research. People on twitter were retweeting with suitably snivelling cries of ‘fashion happiness!’ ‘can’t wait!’ and ‘exciting stuff!’. Phrases such as “Ossie relaunches” are bandied about, despite the fact that a dead man cannot relaunch himself.

“mixture of new designs alongside a limited run of previously unreleased and remastered vintage pieces”

Previously unreleased? Is there a cupboard full of ‘demo’ Ossies out there somewhere? And please don’t use the word ‘remastered’ when you really mean “duplicated in a cheaper fabric”. Excuse me while I weep into my moss crepe sleeve…

Bianca Jagger in Ossie Clark, early Seventies

Ossie was not a brand. He was a genius. An unreliable, infuriating, naturally talented genius. An individual who never sought to and, in fact, never managed to create a viable business, nor a brand, nor a ‘house’. He never played by the rules. He could barely keep himself together long enough to do anything for anyone else. He fell out with just about everyone who ever tried to control or tame him. The work we know best was work reluctantly done for Radley, after they swooped in to rescue Alice Pollock’s flailing Quorum business. The work of which he was proudest was done for the Quorum collections, or as one-off commissions from friends and the famous faces he attracted.

He was a maverick and a genius, and to use his name as though he were some random King’s Road boutique is an insult to his memory.

Devon Wilson in original Ossie Clark, late Sixties

But then this isn’t about respect or regard, it’s not even about fashion. This is about cash. Pure and simple. The Ossie name commands high prices in the vintage world. I should know. But those high prices are because the pieces are finite. There will never be any more original Ossie Clarks than there currently are. People pay those prices because they want something designed by the man himself, with the history and quality that they hold within their fibres and stitches.

I know. Isn’t it awful. Vintage Ossie Clark will never be cheap and plentiful. Boo hoo. I work hard to afford to own the pieces I own myself. And I am not a wealthy person, I am so very far from it. I sell other pieces to people who also work hard and save, and save, to buy a piece for themselves. Producing something cheap and new under the same name will not redress this. You still won’t own a piece of Ossie Clark, I promise you.

Ossie Clark and Marie Helvin, 1978

Debenhams and Alison Mansell Ltd do not care about fashion history. They do not care about clothes. They certainly do not care about Ossie Clark. They only want your money. But when the fashion industry is looping around on itself like a spirograph, and there are no places left to go, then they take their opportunities wherever they can. And if that means trampling all over the name and legacy of a dead man, then trample they will.

And if you doubt what I say about the quality, please take a moment to look at the dress they have been using as their sole image so far. It speaks for itself.

Edited to note that the Daily Mail featured quotes from this blog in an article about the controversy, seemingly inspired by a column by Janet Street-Porter (also in the Mail) in which she also strongly criticised this relaunch.

You can also see equally impassioned blogs on the subject by Liz Tregenza and Queens of Vintage. Let’s start a revolution!

22 thoughts on “Ossie Clark: If it’s not vintage, it’s not Ossie

  1. I only wish I had your eloquence. A righteous, passionate and informed piece that addresses everything that’s wrong about this phony ‘relaunch’. If it’s any consolation, as you clearly state, no one can fake an Ossie – they’ve tried and failed before. It’s a shame we have to watch this miserable spectacle playing out once again, though.

  2. You echo the sentiments of any fashion historian, curator and/or collector worth their salt with your usual eloquence. Nothing in fashion history is sacred anymore, not even the dead. You would think the fashion industry would treat such a design genius with rather more respect and not even attempt to plunder Ossie’s grave albeit only in name. And to get the name incorrect….? Ugh! House of Fraser’s website managed to credit Barbara Hulanicki’s late husband and BIBA co-founder as “Stephen Fitz-Simmons” but like they care anyway. If they can’t even be bothered to spell-check names then that leaves little hope for the designs.

  3. Wonderfully poisonous piece of vituperative invective !

    The mercurial, if deeply troubled, Ossie Clark had an immense talent, whose place in the fashion pantheon of fame is assured, & quite unaffected, by those who subsequently, seek to trade on his name for tawdry purposes.

  4. Well written indeed. And straight from the heart. Yes that blue dress looks dreadful short of cheap. Sad state of affairs. Seems like everyone in the business is looking to make a kill a là the spectacular rebirth of Burberry….
    I wouldn’t be surprised if the late great Jean Muir suddenly gets attention next by yet another possé of investers via Qatar or China.

    1. I think Jean Muir is safe – her ex-husband and his daughter seem pretty savvy and fully aware of what Jean Muir would have wanted to happen. That was why they closed the label down in 2007 – “It is sad, but I believe this is the way Jean would have wanted it. I have, of course, had offers, but I do not want Jean’s name to fall into the wrong hands and be mis-used. That would be horrendous and she would have hated it.”

  5. Surely this only shows the poor standard of design there is in the shops at the present moment .Blame the buyers with their blinkered vision. They have always had control even in the 60,s.. Go forward stop looking back all of you ! Support and encourage new designs and designers etc . The only original designer of the 20th century was Courrege he did not harp back to Hollywood glamour instead made a bold statement in cut and design ..however I have no desire to see pages and pages of his work ..lets all go forward enough is enough .

  6. Hi my dear-excellent post which has left me speechless-I’ve one word for that blue dress-yuk and regarding the impending collection, Debenhams do not have a clue-at all, more money than sense thats for sure. Hope you’re well too xx

  7. I am totally aghast!
    I had not heard this particular bit of news and like some of the other commentators, it’s left me speechless. Debenhams…eurghhhhhh. Couldn’t they just be content with their smug and self satisfied ‘Designers at Debenhams’ ranges. ‘Necrophilism at Debenhams’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
    If I bought a painting which was signed by, let’s say Van Gogh and it turned out to be a forgery I could take legal action against the dealer who sold it to me, so how come Debenhams can plagarise Ossie Clarke?

  8. Yes.
    To my mind this is completely different from (for example) the new Chelsea Girl stuff. In that case, the same company is taking their own former name, and recreating (OK, not always in the best quality) a high street product for people who want a look. Chelsea Girl wasn’t a person, it wasn’t high fashion – if they want to flog their own old designs and I need a pair of flares I can bung in the washing machine that’s fine. Cynical but we both get something. A bit like when M&S put their old 50s designs on cookie tins.

    Whereas, with Ossie Clark a high street chain has ripped off an artist’s name to make money. What are they going to do next? Flog cushion covers by Picasso or greetings cards with mottoes by Charles Dickens?

  9. Couldn’t agree more. That blue dress… ack!! It’s more ‘Abigail’s Party’ than Ossie Clark. Unflattering and blowsy even on a model. I too wish current fashion would stop raiding the archives and get some new ideas – there is no contemporary ‘look’ right now, it’s all retro. Genuine vintage has something to say, but fake vintage/’vintage inspired’ is sheer laziness to my mind. :-\

  10. I agree with and commend every word you have to say on this subject. You make your point so well. As an amateur textile collector and sometime vintage fashion seller, I have long been in despair at the widespread absolutely shameless thieving of original fabric and clothing designs reproduced in cheap versions ( compounded by using sweated labour in poorer societies) to feed the unabashed greed of the directors of major retailers like Debenhams, TopShop, Primark, New Look and others.

    I don’t have any problem with modern day textile and clothing designers using true inspiration from earlier decades – see Christian Lacroix, ” On Fashion” ( Thames and Hudson) for an eloquent exploration of this theme. It’s the deliberately careless and frankly disrespectful attitude of those multi-national retail businesses. By which I mean, careless and disrespectful of their sources and their customers: both of whom are cheated by this attitude.

    Interestingly Cath Kidston made her fortune by originally straddling this narrow line though by now her vintage inspired designs have become so ubiquitous that they’re less than a pastiche and more of a parody. Though even her designs have been endlessly copied by John Lewis among others. Where will it all end?

    Sadly in truth, most of the eager customers who flock to buy have no inkling and probably care very little as long as they have a nice new outfit each Saturday or holiday night. And to be honest when I was an impoverished student in the 1960s I felt much the same when I shopped in Biba or Bus Stop, and the early Laura Ashley hippie folksy dresses. But I was buying original, simple designs produced by young entrepreneurs inspired by the music, modernist space age ‘future’, and the emerging rebellious ‘youth’ culture of the time. In my experience as a vintage seller, the nearest to that these days seems to be (mainly) 1960s/70s/80s vintage fashion recycled by young people of both sexes who mix and match and up-cycle with current clothing in a refreshingly creative way. But that’s another story! ( Sorry this reply is so long. You got me going as it’s such an interesting subject. Cx)

  11. If its any consolation, its not just Ossie Clark – Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, Halston, Valentina… there are many revived labels of master designers of which none of the modern labels have anything nearly as good as the original – even when they are re-issued line for line copies.

  12. Just a little footnote now that the “collection” has been launched.
    They even have their own website!(http://www.ossieclarklondon.co.uk)
    Click on the ‘about the collection’ link and you will read the following;
    Ossie Clark London’s first collection is an ode to the innovation and modernity that the British fashion visionary Ossie Clark encapsulated with her eponymous collections. Partnering heritage Ossie prints & signature cuts our debut collection embodies the spirit and flair of the fashion icon.
    Not content with stealing Ossie’s name they have now given him a sex change.
    Not sure whether to laugh or cry

    1. Well they have surpassed themselves now. Of course the blue dress is an excrescence, I was aware that some Ossie Clark Revival Horror was on the cards but it is worse than I imagined.What you’ve written Miss Peel Pants is bang on the nail – why aren’t fashion journalists questioning this – and other – cynical revivals. Nice story about Ossie – someone offering to ‘back’ him in the 1980s ‘borrowed’ his patterns and tried to copy them. They couldn’t – way beyond the capabilities of the pattern cutters. Ossie Clark’s cutting was sublime, it worked with Birtwell’s prints because they were creatively in tune. Ossie went on to burn his paper patterns in his back garden.There will never be another Ossie Clark because he was irreplaceable. What the journalists should also be asking is this – where are the young designers that can actually cut? The last one that had that kind of skill was Lee McQueen. And finally – that Debenhams picture – it’s hair by Rentokil and makeup by the Hammer House of Horror. Everything Ossie did was about creating beauty through cut and print. Time Debenhams and the new owner of the label understood it.

  13. You took the words right out of my mouth, sacrilege does not even begin to describe it, but I have a nude silk chiffon Amanda Wakely gown that cost 2,500, I can’t get a good price for it due to the diffusion line she now has with 45 pound dresses flooding Ebay

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