LONDON — Add Ossie Clark to the list of once iconic fashion brands aiming for a revival.
Clark was one of Britain's leading designers of the Sixties and Seventies and his work continues to influence fashion. But his business acumen never matched his design talent. Clark went bankrupt and, in 1996, he was fatally stabbed by a former gay lover.
Now Mark Worth, half of the team that founded WGSN, the online information service, is out to revive the Clark label, in the same manner as The Weinstein Co. in the U.S. is seeking to relaunch another major brand from the Seventies, Halston.
Worth, a former clothing manufacturer, believes the Ossie Clark name still possesses magic. For example, "Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy," David Hockney's 1970 portrait of Clark, his ex-wife Celia Birtwell and their cat — is a modern art classic, and still one of visitors' all-time favorite paintings at Tate Britain in London.
"I thought it would be a fun and exciting project," Worth said in an interview at the new Ossie Clark headquarters in North London. "The main reason why British designers don't succeed today is simple — finance. I've been in the clothing business for 30 years, and I thought this would be an ideal way of giving something back to the British fashion industry."
Worth, who founded WGSN with his brother, Julian, and then sold the company in 2005 to Emap for $247 million, has an exclusive licensing deal with Alfred Radley, the clothing manufacturer who purchased Clark's business in the late Sixties.
His project is not the result of a long-harbored dream. Worth, who temporarily retired after selling WGSN, was introduced to Radley this year. He said he was impressed with Radley's "100 percent meticulous" Ossie Clark archive, which includes 700 pieces of clothing, and that he wanted to take a chance on a revival.
"Al had been wanting to relaunch Ossie Clark, but he found that no one had the appetite — or the money — to do it."
Worth declined to disclose how much he paid for the license, although he said he planned to invest a "seven-figure sum" in the overall project. He said his biggest challenge now is to strike a balance between past and present. "We won't be taking the archive and putting it on the runway, but at the same time, this won't be a collection we'll be starting from scratch," he said.Worth added that the Clark business could be the first in a series. "My interest is in giving back to the British fashion industry," he said. "It may be with one brand, it may be with five. For me, it was time for a fresh challenge, and that means developing British designers."
Clark was probably best known for his detailed, architectural tailoring, and his clothing was often complemented by the romantic prints of his ex-wife Birtwell. Once known as "King of the King's Road," Clark's fluid, often bias-cut shapes were distinctive with their full sleeves, swingy skirts, cutout designs and scoop necks. He helped create the Seventies fashion passion for gypsy dresses, midriff tops, bias-cut chiffon dresses and long, fluid, high-waisted crepe dresses.
During his heyday, Clark was friends with Cecil Beaton, Jimi Hendrix, Marianne Faithfull, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Marie Helvin and Elizabeth Taylor. Even after his death, he continued to attract a fashionable fan base. In 2003, London's Victoria and Albert Museum held a mini retrospective of his work and guests at the launch party included Kate Moss, Manolo Blahnik, Zandra Rhodes and Hockney.
Although he mingled with the stars of London's Swinging Sixties, Clark's life was a cautionary tale. At the time of his murder, he was living in government-subsidized housing and talking of reentering the fashion game after years during which he was out of the business.
Worth has picked Avsh Alom Gur, who has worked for Donna Karan, Roberto Cavalli, Chloé and Nicole Farhi, to carry on Clark's creative legacy and head the design team. Although Gur said it's still early, he'll be attempting to marry Clark's "effortless, feminine, beautiful" spirit with contemporary silhouettes.
"This is not going to be a retrospective, and we're not going to be following a formula," Gur said. "Each season we may be inspired by something different from the archive; it could be color, print or proportion. The flavor, spirit — and slightly careless — Ossie Clark style will always be present."
The first collection, which will make its debut with a presentation at London Fashion Week in February, will have about 30 ready-to-wear pieces. The second collection, Worth said, will be bigger and he plans to launch accessories for spring 2009. The rtw manufacturing will be done in Italy, the U.K. and China.Retail prices will range from about 300 pounds, or $615, to 475 pounds, or $974, for a day dress, and 195 pounds, or $400, to 300 pounds, or $615, for separates.
Worth said he plans to wholesale the line at first, and is targeting stores, including Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York. He said stand-alone stores would come "further down the line.
"I think there's a gap in the market at that price point," he said. "Certainly, when it comes to British designer brands there is nothing out there."
Worth has also hired Astrid Martheleur-Lyons, who has worked at Donna Karan, Katayone Adeli and Diane von Furstenberg, to be director of global sales and merchandising.
"We're a designer brand, but we're also accessible because we're price-conscious," Martheleur-Lyons said. "The world does not need another 1,000 pound [$2,050] day dress at retail. And we don't need to do that."
Martheleur-Lyons said the design team would seek to preserve the architectural construction and bias cuts of Clark's designs.
"We see our strength as fantastic separates and dresses," she said, adding that in the U.S. market, they won't be competing on price. "The U.S. is a saturated market right now, and we're not going to be filling a price niche there. What we are offering is English fashion blood and the style of Ossie Clark — who is still inspirational to so many designers."
The success of the project, said Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand, a global brand consultancy, will depend upon the "distinctive style'' that Gur and his team can offer. "It's a hypercompetitive market, and so much depends on how distinctly this brand is reinterpreted," she said. "Potentially, this could be a new Pucci, which has done so well because it stands apart."
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