08 January 2014

Pretty in prints

I recently had the pleasure of being allowed onto the hallowed top floor at the Gallery of Costume; a no-go zone for the general public. I was given a peek behind the scenes by Miles Lambert, who has curated the collection for some time now and really knows his Gucci from his Pucci, and I was there to preview the upcoming exhibition for Creative Tourist. This is the second in a series of retrospectives introduced last year (heads-up: the third will be Elsa Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel's greatest rival, so can't wait for that!). My feature was published yesterday, and you can read it here or, indeed, in a slightly extended version, here

Fashion changes with the seasons, and the Gallery of Costume in Platt Fields is no slouch when it comes to following that trend. Hot on the heeled pumps of Christian Dior (you have until Sunday to catch Designer In Focus - read my review of that show here) is a brand-new show, again spanning a ten-year career; this time, of influential local-boy-done-good Ossie Clark. So for spring, it’s out with the old and in with the new(ish), fast forwarding from 1947-57 to 1967-77. And it’s all about bringing fashion back home: the Warrington-born designer was evacuated to Oswaldtwistle in Lancashire during the war (hence Ossie) then moved to Manchester in 1958 to study at the College Of Art.

“We wanted to do something British this time,” the gallery’s senior curator, Miles Lambert, tells me in his book-lined and glossy magazine-strewn office. “We also wanted a show that would connect with what ordinary, fashionable women bought – it will hopefully engage with women who might have actually worn the outfits.”

Indeed, because, by the late 60s, Ossie Clark was a designer whose clothes were within reach of upwardly mobile women thanks to him launching one of the first-ever diffusion lines, producing more and selling for less. From 1968, Ossie Clark for Radley ran in tandem with the exclusive label Ossie Clark, which had been picked up by Alice Pollock for her Kensington boutique Quorum after his Royal College of Art graduation collection was featured in the August 1965 issue of Vogue. Miles shows me a photo of a Quorum-era piece he has just acquired: a pale pink minidress with a sporty trim (think Mary Quant on the tennis court), apparently designed for the American market.

It was in 1966 when Clark started to collaborate creatively with Bury-born textile designer Celia Birtwell (recently back in the public eye with collections at the much-lauded Noughties-revamped TopShop as well as John Lewis), whom he had met while he studied in Manchester and she in Salford, and whom he married in 1969, the newlyweds famously captured by David Hockney in the painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (see Early Reflections at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool for a retrospective of his work, unfortunately missing the Ossie and Celia portrait after an extended loan from the Tate a couple of years back).

Birtwell’s cutting-edge prints feature heavily in the Gallery of Costume retrospective, mainly on Clark’s renowned flattering and very feminine chiffon dresses and blouses, some complete with medieval princess sleeves, but also on a beautiful brushed cotton Biba-esque number as well as a fitted, quilted jacket. Clark was an expert with the scissors – famously saying: “I’m a master cutter; it’s all in my brain and my fingers” – and his precision can be best seen in a structured jacket owned by fashion journalist Suzy Menkes, perhaps purchased after she’d seen his 1971 show, which she described as “the most extraordinary moment in fashion history”.

Miles and I discuss fabrics: the jacket looks to be a treated satin, but I’m informed it’s more likely polyester, as Clark enjoyed using “modern” materials. Moss-crepe was another favourite with the designer and seven of his trademark draped maxi-evening gowns take centre stage in the first-floor dining room at Platt Hall: a “swirl of colour”, Miles describes the installation, showing me a rainbow of single-shaded dresses, including a bold mustard – another trademark, if the multiple yellow outfits here are anything to go by.

Many of the 25 pieces are on show in Manchester for the first time although they are all in the gallery’s permanent collection and some have been seen before in the main era-by-era display (the 1960-70s case has been redone as a result). British Fashion Genius continues in the changing exhibitions gallery on the ground floor, with short films featuring Ossie Clark designs being worn by Swinging 60s Chelsea girls, and magazines from the time, such as a 1973 Cosmopolitan with the cover model in one of his trademark brightly coloured plunge dresses. “It’s the only cover I could find,” Miles sighs. “A blast of light and then it’s gone.”

Ossie Clark: A British Fashion Genius, 1967-77, Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, Platt Fields Park, Wilmslow Road, Manchester, M14 5LL, 1pm-5pm Mon-Fri, 10am-5pm Sat-Sun. 30 January – 29 June 2014, free. (Photographs courtesy Kerry Taylor Auctions, 2013 and Manchester City Galleries, 2013.)