Inventing Hippie Chic

At a time when fashion designers routinely stage shows in railway stations or hire actresses and musicians to moonlight as models, couture as theater is something of a cliche. Not so back in the 1960s, when the presentation of a new collection still involved mainly prim models walking up and down a runway holding ID numbers to mark their outfits. It was the late British designer Ossie Clark who changed it all, sending It girls like Patti Boyd and Bianca Jagger onto the catwalk, encouraging scantily clad models to dance among the audience and filling the front row not with press but with glitterati clients who epitomized the swinging '60s--people like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Twiggy, Talitha Getty, Penelope Tree, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull.

Despite the number of famous people he dressed, Clark himself is little known--mainly because he was a mercurial and self-destructive talent with a heyday that lasted about 10 years. But as a new retrospective at London's Victoria and Albert Museum shows, his talent and influence still loom large in fashion. Contemporaries like Mary Quant or Zandra Rhodes may spring to mind faster, "but it is Ossie that designers today go back to when they want to evoke this period," says the show's curator, Sonnet Stanfill. Clark's floaty chiffon dresses and multipatterned pantsuits are hippie archetypes. Indeed, modern couturiers continually tap into his legacy; Emanuel Ungaro, Chloe, Prada, John Galliano and Marc Jacobs have all mined his style in recent collections.

Clark may have lacked the name recognition and marketing savvy of other designers, but he was a true innovator. "Ossie Clark" (through May 2004) includes a stunning red trouser suit that caused a stir in 1964, when waiters in London hotels like Claridge's still refused to serve women wearing pants. One of the first designers to work with animal skins, Clark crafted a silver-fox-and-snakeskin jacket for Twiggy that would suit a rock star today. He brought evening wear into daytime, got women to ditch their miniskirts for maxis and made biker jackets mainstream. He also helped launch talents like Manolo Blahnik, who designed the shoes for one of Clark's 1972 shows, in which the models teetered fashionably in suede platform sandals with unsupported rubber heels.

Clark's creative talent was grounded in classical training. He was known as an expert pattern cutter from his student days at the Royal College of Art, and his tailoring skills added weight to designs that might otherwise have been too saccharine. Designer Anna Sui calls him "the master of the bias cut." Vintage couture collectors favor his designs, which tend to hold their shape over time. In one portion of the exhibit, an uncharacteristically severe black coat shows off Clark's technical prowess; its detailed fan pleating and clean lines are almost Victorian in precision. Despite being the king of hippie chic, "Ossie loved historic dress, and would often come to the V&A as a student to make sketches," says Stanfill.

In the retrospective, Clark himself stares out from a copy of the famous David Hockney double portrait "Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy." Divorced from his wife and textile-designing partner, Celia Birtwell, in the mid-'70s, Clark eventually burned out in the high-flying way of many of his clients: he developed a drug habit, went bankrupt and in 1996 was murdered by a male lover. But with a little help from the V&A, he remains a fashion icon, immortalized not only in the couture of the time but in the designs that endure today.