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Celebrities, Fashion, Music, Opinion

The gospel according to Beth Ditto, the Gossip front woman and plus-size fashion designer: how to wear Spanx, why polyamory is in and what to do when you bump into Madonna (literally)

Ginny Dougary
The Times
september 2010

Beth Ditto

Beth Ditto is wasted. She’s been on tour around Europe for the past eight weeks with her band the Gossip, and she’s barely had two hours’ sleep a night. So has the self-professed grandma of rock’n’roll – with her love of crocheting, baking and fixing her girlfriends’ hairdos – finally succumbed to its more grungy side? No, as it turns out, what’s been keeping her awake is trying to figure out the way the world works, with her best friend and manager, Tara (pronounced, confusingly, in the Southern way, to rhyme with Bear) with whom she is sharing her hotel room.

“So last night we had this crazy conversation, talking about the idea of what opinion is, what fact is, and what judgment is and, like, how those are three different things,” she explains, while munching on a bag of some kind of crunchy, dried fruit. “And how people have this idea that opinion is fact when they see a movie or read a book and how the left does it to the right wing and the right wing does it to the left.”

She’s also bothered that journalism is in danger of dying: “Because we all know that anybody can have a blog and be followed and believed – and it’s, like, people who think they’re so smart and so with it but they don’t even stop to write properly.

“Now, you have to follow me here, because I’m a little woo-woo, but it’s like in medieval times with all these major powers – London existing as a huge city, or Rome – and outside there were all these tiny groups that didn’t really have a voice and now all these little groups do have a voice, for the first time ever. [Like] rural Arkansas [where she was born and brought up] has a voice and those people have never experienced anything of the world.”

Beth Ditto is a most unusual person, quite apart from her status as the most (if not the only) well-known, fashionable, proud-to-be-fat lesbian rock chick, with her clutch of awards and accolades: NME’s Coolest Person in Rock in 2006; nominated for NME’s Sexiest Woman of the Year in 2007; winning Glamour’s International Musician in 2008. She is obviously thoughtful but also fun and seems to enjoy speaking her mind, regardless or – often without thinking – of the consequences.

Take her comments about Kate Moss, who later became a friend. “I was a punk and to me she was just a blonde, skinny, white girl…” Which is why you said that she was boring? “Well, I’d never talked to her [then] and I was coming more from a pop culture point of view.”

The Gossip’s most recent album in 2009, Music for Men, had some hands-on honing by the American producer and co-president of Columbia Records, Rick Rubin. A legend in the music business, and listed in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, Rubin invited Ditto to his home to work on lyrics. I told her I’d read somewhere that she’d said, “I’ve always said that the Gossip are a band I would go see, not a band I would listen to.”

“Yeah, I have always said that but it hurt Rick Rubin – he even called me, which is rare, because he’s an e-mailer,” she says. “He was, like, ‘I read that you said you wouldn’t listen to the Gossip but you would go see them – but we worked really hard on this record and that’s not fair.’ And I was, like, ‘Oh I never really thought about it like that.’ ”

As a performer, Ditto certainly seems to give her all. I went to one of the Gossip’s gigs last year at the old Town & Country Club in London and the place was heaving with a huge variety of people: lots of gay men (among whom Ditto has a big following), patches of punks with peroxide mohawks, some mothers and daughters, and people of advancing years as well as young, studenty types.

When Ditto ran onto the stage, the crowd went into a collective swoon. She was wearing one of her more improbable outfits, which resembled a baby’s short romper suit, but in black lurex, cinched with a belt. Her hair was tomato red and cut in a shiny, boyish bob. What was most remarkable about her performance was her energy; she tore across the stage, strutted (to screams from the audience) and sang her heart out, despite suffering from bronchitis.

After several encores (including Tina Turner’s, one of Ditto’s heroines, What’s Love Got to Do with It), she went down among the audience and then finished the night with a sort of motivational speech: “F*** what anyone thinks of you because you mean everything to me. If you don’t get the respect that you are due, then demand the respect – in the nicest possible way.

“It’s a big, big world. Take it and make it a good world because it’s up to us. Like my mama said to me: ‘Mary Beth Ditto, they are not going to eat you and spit you out.’ ”

I went up to her dressing room after the gig, expecting her to look sweaty after all her exertions, but her make-up was as flawless as her manners, and she was as poised as a Southern belle – albeit an unorthodox one – who had been doing nothing more arduous than reclining on a rocker on a verandah, sipping a mint julep.

She may hang out with the fashion crowd but she does not share that world’s enthusiasm for Class A drugs. Although she later tells me, in her scrupulous way: “I have taken ecstasy four times, probably, since we last spoke [eight months previously]. I have taken four in my life.” But not cocaine? “Oh my God, I would never do that. I feel I can talk a lot anyway, I can dance all night anyway, and I can sweat by myself… I can sit in sweat.

“But I do understand now why people feel that they need drugs [on tour]… because your body doesn’t know where it is and you are seriously burning the candle at both ends, and it’s lonely, you know.”
The Gossip’s electrifying performances are fuelled by a revolting-sounding cocktail which their guitarist, Nathan, invented and named “Whiskey Business” – a blend of sugar-free Red Bull and Jameson’s. “It tastes gross,” Ditto grins. “Like if you took three children’s vitamins and ground them up with a teaspoon of water, but it’s awesome.”

The next time we meet is at a studio where Ditto is modelling her second collection of plus-size clothes at Evans. There is a rail of dresses and tops behind a screen and a particularly sexy cotton jersey maxi number in black, with plunging neckline and Grecian folds which cunningly conceal a large tummy. The murky khaki version of it Ditto has on really suits her, with her milk-white skin and dark eyes. There are Sixties shifts in great retro patterns to be worn with leggings, which she has designed with a long waist to stop that annoying business of forever having to hoick them up. One of the engagingly practical aspects about Ditto is that she is absolutely committed to creating fashion that is comfortable as well as cool.

After the interview that takes place after the shoot, during which we spoke mainly about gender politics and her love life, I send Ditto some follow-up questions via e-mail about the nitty-gritty of looking good when you are large, such as: How important is underwear? You mentioned the joys of Spanx, for instance. Do you believe in the importance of a good bra? Are you into French camiknickers or no knickers at all?

Some weeks later, she came back with detailed replies and here is an edited extract:
“i am an underwear fanatic. i’m on the hunt for the perfect pair of panties and have been since i can remember. i like to mix comfort and cuteness. underwear are not cute when they’re bunched up or ill fitting. we all know what can go wrong with a poor pair. i am always on the look out for a perfect combination of stretch, cotton and lace. comfort is confidence in my opinion, and confidence is sexy and beautiful.

“i love spanx for 100 reasons. there’s no rubbing. for me, spanx accentuate shape without concealing your body. they truly are a revolution. i remember all my proms wearing snap at the crotch old school girdles. the misery and discomfort is ungodly, not to mention the work it took to undo them just to go to the bathroom.

“when i was a teenager i achieved the same results of spanx with tights that were a size too big and pulled them up to right under my bosom. so there’s still that option, for a cheaper solution.”
Back at the fashion shoot, Ditto is crouching and pouting, wearing her Evans gear as well as some torturous-looking super-high stilettoes. Her Australian hairdresser, Lyndell, tweaks her hair, her make-up artist is around – apparently this process takes two-and-a-half hours – and presumably Cedric, her stylist, as well as Tara on stand-by. Ditto hands a bag of dirty laundry to one of her entourage, saying that she will wash her underwear herself, and we take off to her hotel.

She has a number of heroines, one of whom is Vivienne Westwood, whose giant yellow Anglomania T-shirt she is wearing as a dress. “I love her for a lot of reasons,” she says, as we sit around a table in the hotel suite. “Number one, I really do think she invented punk. Number two, she’s an activist and she’s more of an activist now than she ever was.

“I’ve met her only one time and she said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.’ And I was, like, ‘You’re not really supposed to – you’re Vivienne Westwood, you know.’ ”

Ditto was born in Searcy, Arkansas, and christened Mary Beth Patterson. Her mother was a nurse, now 53, who worked long hours supporting her family of 7 children. Mary Beth’s father left when she was young and was replaced by a number of stepfathers, the most significant of whom was Homer Ditto, whose surname Beth adopted.

“There were too many kids and not enough bedrooms,” she says. “Like I’d take a bath with the door open and not even think about it because there was no privacy.”

So what’s your mother like? “She’s kinda like me only she’s a little more reserved. I think she wanted me to do the things that she always wanted to do. Not like, you know, ‘Wow! A free spirit,’ but to let go of all the hang-ups she had about herself, and her voice and her insecurities…”

Her voice? “Oh, she is an amazing singer and a loud person. She held my nose to teach me how to use my diaphragm.” (Her daughter learnt how to sing gospel in choirs at school and at church.)
She describes her upbringing as “really Southern old-style… with my mom, there was always a baby and my sister rocks her kids to sleep, and my brothers rock their kids to sleep, just like my mom rocked us to sleep. People are always saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to hold a baby.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s like holding a football. Just gimme that kid.’ I’ve always loved babies and I’ve always loved kids.”
At the age of 18, Ditto was rescued from the life she had envisioned for herself of being either a full-time mom or a hairdresser, when her friend Kathy Mendonca, the original drummer of the Gossip (now a midwife), sent her a ticket to Olympia, in Washington state. She describes it as “a magical place. Things have been created there, which have caught on in the pop culture, which are incredible and just couldn’t happen anywhere else.”

From there, she moved to her present home in Portland, Oregon, which she says is equally amazing: “It’s dyke city, with a huge fat-positive scene and huge feminist scene.”
In January, this year, she broke up with her girlfriend of the past nine years, Freddie, who identifies herself as a man. There had been tensions in their relationship for some time and Ditto had written a song, Love Long Distance, about their difficulties: “Call yourself a romantic, let me explain/ Been across the Atlantic and back again/ I had it with your antics, your childish games.”

What went wrong? “We didn’t drift, we didn’t explode; we just had incredible differences that were unresolvable. The things that were wrong four years ago [when she wrote the song] were the same things that were wrong when we broke up. I was never given an ultimatum, but the only thing I was not willing to give up was the Gossip.

“There was a lot of judgment, like, ‘You’re joining the fashion world,’ and somebody who calls Kate Moss boring and then all of a sudden becomes friends with her and all of a sudden has this respect for her because you’ve been thrown into this world you didn’t understand before but now I git [get] it… Like being in front of the camera today, I understand that it is a job and it’s really tiring and you’re actually giving a lot.”

Part of the problem was the age difference between her and Freddie, who was seven years her senior: “I think I was malleable and impressionable… I’m almost 30 now, not 20 any more, and the difference is crazy, although I still have a lot of growing to do, of course.

“I didn’t realise until after we broke up that I was always jealous of his exes and really felt threatened by them. I was the first fat girl that he’d ever dated and that was really strange. When Freddie and I first started dating we were open [sexually] and I f***in’ hated it. It destroyed my self-esteem and I blamed him for it for so long.

“I really tried for him to be the one but it was such hard work all the time. I’m not someone who gives up easily because I’m such a monogamist… well, a serial monogamist. The part of me that is feminist doesn’t like the idea of competition between girls and what we do to each other and how we tear each other apart. But I also don’t think polyamory is helpful for me anyway.”

Did you say “polyamory”? “Yeah. That’s a new thing that’s goin’ around these days.”
Anyway, they both have new girlfriends now. Ditto is with Kristin, who has been one of her best friends since she was 19: “She’s Asian – Japanese/Chinese – and very beautiful and handsome.
“She’s really into Hesher… Do you know what Hesher is?” Nope. “Like really heavy metal psych rock. And her hair is LHB.

Do you know what LHB is?” Afraid not. “A long-haired butch.” Ah. “She’s two years older than me and she’s taller than me – five foot four – which is awesome.”

What does she do? “She’s my assistant now!” A big gurgle of a laugh. “But she was a waitress and before that she wanted to be a doctor and went to school [college] for seven years. She’s an only child – so different from my family. Really sweet and really gentle.”

It turns out that the two have harboured a secret passion for each other for years – “a really crazy secret love, although it wasn’t that secret because everybody knew about it, I think, even Freddie” – and they plan to have a baby together. “Kristin is the one for me, for sure, and we’ve talked about having a baby and if it’s a girl we will call her Yoko.”

She says that although her girlfriend is the “butch” and she is the “femme”, she believes that no one person is all one thing or the other: “Like in our house, if something’s broke there’s no way Kristin would fix it – I would be the one to fix it even though I’m the femme.”

I wonder whether now that she is such a celebrity, Ditto has groupies lining up to hang out with her. “No, I don’t. You can ask Kristin. But I don’t read people’s sexual energy very well unless I know them – and sex is something which is really intimate.
“Also, it’s not like you’re going to find a closeted butch woman who’s gonna sleep with you as a femme but you will find a closeted femme that will sleep with a butch.”

Well, unlike the folks she left behind, Ditto certainly has seen something of the world…whether it is the radical, gay, green, punk, feminist scene in Portland or the glamour and glitz of the entertainment business which she is still a little bemused to find herself in, bumping (literally, much to her consternation: “Everybody went white as a sheet”) into Madonna at Pedro Almodóvar’s party. Debbie Harry, another of her heroines, was there, and Penélope Cruz. “And I was, like,” she whispers, “ ‘How the hell did I get invited to this party?’ ”

The Ditto of her late twenties, as she says, is very different from the girl who escaped from small-town Arkansas and, although there are some signs of the trappings of stardom (the rider for the shoot, for one, with an insane list of requirements, including a particular sort of water and tofu; the large entourage; the controlling management), she still retains a sense of perspective about her good fortune.

“I identify with all the things that are going on in Portland, but I feel like I have a window into life that other people there don’t have…Like I get to make a living out of art. And I don’t know many people that get to make a middle-class living. Middle class is rich where I’m from. Our slogan in the Gossip when someone starts to bitch about something really ridiculous is ‘Shut up and quit your bitchin’, cos you’re rich.’ You know, we’re lucky basically.”

I spoke to a fashion magazine editor before interviewing Ditto and she said that she found the whole Dittomania thing offensive and even a bit cruel. But I couldn’t agree less. On each occasion that I’ve seen Ditto on television – with Jonathan Ross, for instance – or in her print interviews, she has always seemed far too original and bright, with her own unshowy self-assurance, to allow herself to be patronised.

Still, I ask her, as Tara hovers to wrap things up before another sleepless night of philosophical debate, how she feels when people say that she is like a fetish or a mascot. “Well, what’s wrong with being a mascot? You know, they can treat me that way but I don’t care. You realise really quickly, from growing up poor, who your friends are.

“And you quickly learn that it’s not about making enemies your friends; it’s about making more friends and forgetting about enemies anyway. I mean it’s just ridiculous to me because everybody is someone’s mascot and someone’s fetish. Right?”

There’s nothing“ditto” about Ditto and I mean that, as she would say, in the nicest possible way.

Fashion, Women

Celia Birtwell’s flower power

The Times, October 04, 2008
- Ginny Dougary

Celia Birtwell’s floral designs defined a decade – and now they’re in vogue again with the Topshop set

Celia Birtwell, a name that once seemed firmly consigned to the past, is enjoying a prodigious renaissance – and her new fans, legions of them judging by her sell-out collections, are the daughters and granddaughters of the generation of women in the late Sixties and early Seventies who once wore, or could only dream of wearing, those gorgeous epoch-defining frocks, the fabric designed by herself and tailored by her ex-husband, the late, murdered Ossie Clark.

It’s rather marvellous to think of 16-year-old schoolgirls stampeding Topshop – where Birtwell’s limited editions tend to sell out quicker even than the Kate Moss range, in minutes rather than a day – to buy floaty mini and maxi dresses in the very same prints, the styles only slighty updated from the originals, which were worn by the likes of Bianca Jagger and Marianne Faithfull in their own dewy youth.

This summer marked Birtwell’s fourth season with the high-street chain since her debut collection in 2006, and she was chuffed and amused to have a window devoted to herself in Oxford Circus, “With all my daft little girls and skirts that come down just past your knickers and banners – a bit like a carnival. It’s called ‘Young and Cool’, I think.”

There was another collaboration, with Millets – perhaps even more unlikely, given that “happy camper” is not a phrase one would readily associate with Birtwell, certainly not in the outdoors sense – in the spring, featuring tents and wellies, sleeping bags and golf umbrellas, all looking weirdly desirable in subtle colours and delicate patterns. There was her cover of an Elizabeth Taylor novel for the 30th anniversary of Virago Modern Classics earlier in the year, a forthcoming BBC Two documentary made by the same team behind Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain which charts “Celia’s survival”, as her assistant puts it, from the late Sixties to her current rebirth, and her contribution – a homage to Manolo Blahnik, who designed shoes for Clark and Birtwell’s runway shows – in the recent 20th anniversary issue of Marie Claire magazine.

More licensing deals are in the pipeline, the Celia Birtwell range of “girlie toiletries” for Boots, wash bags, and little bags for brushes and emery boards and eyelash curlers – “Not that I’ve ever known how to use them” – and sunglasses, engraved with Birtwell’s distinctive flowing signature and various designs from cat faces to stars or stripes in charcoal and powder blue. She agrees that the Birtwell brand seems to be everywhere at the moment, and says that a lot of it’s down to Antonia, her publicist, and her daughter-in-law, Bella, who decided that, “Celia Birtwell ought to be licensed while she’s become something in her older life.”

But Birtwell has her own secret (not for much longer) agenda, which emerged when the Queen of Prints said that she hasn’t worn prints herself for a good few years. Isn’t this admission a bit close to “doing a Ratner”? She laughs, and it’s a surprisingly dirty chuckle escaping from that rose-red cupid’s bow.

Despite her doll-like demeanour – she still looks strikingly like the young woman in one of Tate Britain’s most popular paintings by her old friend David Hockney, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71, reproduced above), the same limpid gaze and topknot of cherubic curls – there’s nothing mimsy-pimsy about Birtwell. She has that same no-nonsense strand shared by other creative northern types of her generation: Sir Ian McKellen, Hockney and even the bossy former schoolteacher occasionally glimpsed from under Vivienne Westwood’s veil of eccentricity.

When I ask Birtwell whether she has a beauty regimen, for instance, she says: “I think we’re told an awful lot of rubbish about make-up, actually. Do you remember that Boots thing [they are selling her products, remember], when they all went bonkers and sold out of this stuff… I mean, if it’s really serious, it would have to be on prescription. It can’t work. It’s not going to, you just believe it does. Anyway, I’ve always used soap and water on my face.”

How does she feel about Botox? “No, no, no – I think that’s far too vain. I would not do that. I feel there’s a conscience within me in a way, and I’m also quite a coward. I wouldn’t do it because, when one reasons it out, how fortunate are we to get to my age and actually be well? And I think, in the end, you really shouldn’t do it. I don’t really agree with it.” You think it’s a bit immoral? “I do really, yes.”

Warming to her theme, she continues: “This whole business of vanity… You know, what is beauty? We always reflect so much on youth and then it all disappears. You just live, don’t you, after a certain age? You’re just a being. And we don’t really have many icons that are older. Very few. And you see people of my age, I’m afraid, and they’re probably quite a bit younger than me, but what do they look like?

“The ones who haven’t got any style at all and they’re all out there, aren’t they? I think it’s rather sad, actually, when you look around. I sometimes think the Queen is quite an advocate of how those women look – when you see the grey hair curled up and those clothes… I don’t know who they want to look like or… I can’t get to the bottom of that one.”

Birtwell certainly manages to look stylish, despite her own shopping frustrations. She is all in black, an Agnès B chiffon blouse, tailored trousers, “a very old” pair of Charles Jourdan shoes with a delicate heel, a Topshop tasselled bag for her mobile phone, and a splash of red in her own Celia Birtwell scarf.

All her designs at the moment are for young girls and yet, “There’s a huge market out there for people like myself who would wear patterns if they could find them in suitable styles. I really feel for my generation, because we’re starved of suitable clothes that aren’t skimpy. I mean, you don’t really want to show your arms, for instance, when you’re my age. Mine aren’t bad, actually, but they’re not wonderful. And my legs are still good with a stocking on, but I always wear trousers.

“We’re all vain, really, but it’s very depressing because I can’t really be bothered to diet any more. I really can’t and yet if I ate everything I wanted I would be the size of a house. And what is there around for women in bigger sizes? Evans?” she laughs. “I’ve got lots and lots of friends and colleagues and acquaintances who say the same as I do, and that is that there’s everything for youth and beauty and nothing for the older woman. And it’s a bloody shame. Even my doctor, who’s quite a big woman, said the other day that she’d love one of my blouses from Topshop but there was nothing that would fit her. So it’s a cry and I think, ‘Well come on Birtwell, you can be a bit of a pioneer and do something about it.’”

Her fashion tips for the older woman (and she doesn’t consider herself a fashionista, saying: “Fashion can be very lightweight, can’t it? And silly”) are to wear blocks of plain colour and restrict your patterns to details in the cuffs or hems or in a scarf.

During her long years out of the limelight, Birtwell brought up her two sons, Albert and George, by Clark (the couple divorced in 1974) and opened a small shop in Westbourne Park Road in 1984 selling her fabrics, conveniently up the street from her house. Next year will mark the shop’s 25th anniversary, but she is fighting off Bella and Antonia’s plans to organise a big celebration: “No, I’m not going to do that,” she says staunchly. “I’m not agreeing and I’ve said to Bella I don’t want to because I don’t like anniversaries or celebrations – I like going to other people’s but not for me. I’ve never liked them, even when I was 21.”

Has the area changed a lot? “Just a bit… what do you think?” Birtwell laughs. “It’s the hub of the universe, I think they think.” “They” being the Notting Hill set who’ve moved in. “It’s amazing… amazing. Well, I’m not the right age group any more, so you have to keep a low profile, really – because it’s all to do with youth and beauty.” A lot of serious money splashing around? “Tell me about it,” she says, more dazed than disapproving. “You see these cars and I mean the most stylish girls – incredible looking, so pretty, beautifully groomed with little frocks on. The pick and it happens to be in my street. I lived in Notting Hill for a long time and when I moved to Westbourne Park Road and first had the shop, it was really quite seedy. It was… poor, quite poor.”

Hockney – who was always close to Birtwell, his muse as well as one of his dearest friends (in spite of an early fling with her husband) – helped her raise the necessary funds by arranging for his studio to take one of her drawings by him, and holding it until she could repay a loan of £20,000. She’s not all that keen on the endless recyling of this story for some reason; perhaps because it reminds her of when life was a bit of a struggle.

Certainly, apart from the financial uncertainties, her ex was problematic. His response to her asking for a divorce was to kick her and punch her so hard in the face he broke her nose. [This was an entry in his diaries.] When I ask her if he was often violent towards her, Birtwell says: “He wasn’t very nice to me.”

Clark had custody of the boys each weekend: “I couldn’t really rest because I was alarmed by his unpredictability [the boys were only five and three when their parents divorced] and irresponsible behaviour isn’t really what you want for your children.” Was he drinking with them? “God knows what he was doing. I don’t know. I kept very much away from it. I could never quite work out what it was that I was frightened of, but he did frighten me.”

Birtwell would prefer not to dwell on these difficult times, mainly for the sake of the boys, who are now approaching 40 and have children of their own. But neither was she thrilled with their decision to publish their father’s journals in 1998, two years after he was stabbed to death by his young former lover, Diego Cogolato. The Ossie Clark Diaires, described by one commentator as “relentlessly miserable”, focused not on the designer’s glory days when he hung out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Cecil Beaton and Mick and Bianca, but his fall from grace: the struggles with alcohol, drugs and depression, bankruptcy in 1983, feelings of failure, his search for casual sex and increasing rejections, lack of money and reliance on Salvation Army meals. Did she warn her sons about the likely content? “I did try and it wasn’t something that I recommended, but how do you spell something like that out? It’s too difficult.”

When I comment on how much the obituaries made of him living in a council flat [in Notting Hill, after all, hardly a ghetto], she says: “It’s the whole image, isn’t it – of building a situation where somebody who could have been living in a château… Well, it’s sort of spelling it out, really.” Did she have any presentiment that his life could end so abruptly [at the age of 54]? “I don’t know… I didn’t really see him for quite a long time before he fell apart. He would come into the shop occasionally and get fabric from me sometimes. But he was pretty removed. I didn’t really find that we had much to say to each other. He was very bitter. People rescued me and I just think I was very glad of that.”

I wonder whether she can see anything of Clark in her sons now to remind her of what made her fall in love with their father before everything turned sour? “Yes, when you see one of them smile and they look a bit like him. Yes, you do – of course you do – or the way they move or do little things.”

Birtwell is funny, as she often is (I can see why Hockney finds her such amusing company), about the alleged glamour of hobnobbing with the great names of the Sixties. The closest she got to Jimi Hendrix, for instance, was shaking his hand in a basement Indian restaurant in the Fulham Road and clamping a pillow over her ears when Ossie played his records all night long: “I used to think, ‘Oh God, I could do without him at 2.30 in the morning.’”

There was also the time that her husband’s girlfriends in New York, “who were really Jimi Hendrix groupies”, turned up to stay in their pursuit of their hero. “So I had the groupies but not Jimi Hendrix,” she says drily, adding, “Ossie was always very generous with his friends and inviting them to stay at our place.”

She was pleased to have met Talitha Getty through her husband, another beautiful casualty of that excessive period: “I remember thinking, ‘You’re really lovely to look at and rather interesting and exotic, too.’

“Ossie had nice taste in people and I would have them round for tea. He was quite a butterfly in as much as he wanted new stimulus all the time. And new people. He was very, very easily bored. My mother [a former seamstress who used to discuss dressmaking with the teenage Ossie in Manchester] always said about him that he considered himself to be an artist and rated himself alongside Mick Jagger and David Hockney. He was actually rather furious that the pay and the accolades and the whole being was still probably ‘ragtrade’.

“There was nobody who could cut like Ossie, nobody. He was really inspired by the bias-cut chic of those fabulous old Hollywood films. They were never like ‘fancy dress’ – they were properly constructed, serious clothes. But he didn’t have a very good discipline. He didn’t realise that you have to work all the time. You have to keep at it.”

Birtwell is a forward-looking person, not given to nostalgia, but she did feel it was important to rise to the challenge of honouring Clark’s name after his death. In 1999, a relation of her late ex’s suggested she put together a show about him in a museum in Warrington. (Clark was actually from nearby Oswaldtwistle, hence his nickname; he was christened Raymond.) So she got her collection of old clothes out of the attic and set off with her designer friend, Brian Harris, to transform the space: “The little museum was a bit grey. so I insisted it was painted in a really bright pink and a strong green – which was rather Ossie – and they said, ‘Can’t we just do a little bit?’ and I said, ‘No, you’ve got to do it all – otherwise it’ll look frightful, just believe me.’ You know, if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it well.”

It was four years later that the V&A held a mini-retrospective dedicated to Clark with a launch party attended by the old guard of Faithfull, Pallenberg, Andrew Logan and Zandra Rhodes, as well as the new guard of Sadie Frost, Kate Moss and Brett Anderson.

Our first meeting, at Birtwell’s request, is for afternoon tea in Claridge’s – one of the hotels, along with the Lanesborough, which have bought her fabrics over the years to decorate their suites. Some weeks later, I drop into her shop unannounced and she kindly takes a break from preparing dinner for her agent (chicken pie) to show me around. It is a tiny space, with rolls of highly decorative material from all the different eras: mythical beasts dating back to 1984, the year the shop opened; lovely silks from the late Nineties, with Cocteau-esque animal heads and gold swirls (Orphée); Mystic Daisy and Candy Flower in pop-art colours from the current range.

In the loo at the back, there’s a Hockney drawing of Celia although she says: “He wasn’t all that keen on me opening the shop. He couldn’t have cared less about it – he’s probably only been here about a dozen times. He’s got my fabrics in his house in Bridlington and he likes my style and he’s always very sweet about the way I look and he thinks I’m a bit ridiculous, which I don’t mind at all.

“We have a very nice time when we’re together and I like the way I can amuse him because he’s great when he laughs. He’s horrible when he’s miserable. You want to be in another room. He can be depressed and be quite depressing. He’s a bit like a little boy, terribly sweet, cramming everthing in and then he collapses and wonders why. I think probably people of his quality don’t realise as you get older, you get more tired.”

At one point, Andrew Palmer, her boyfriend of the past 21 years – (she loathes the word “partner”) – drops in with one of the grandchildren’s old high chairs all packaged and ready to be sent off to an eBay purchaser. Twenty-one years ago, he was hired to renovate Birtwell’s house and never moved out. She had told me that he was a lot younger – by 15 years – but said, “He’s much older than me in the head. It’s unfortunate that I’m older in the body – hahahahah – but that will never change. It’s just the way it is. He’s also a redhead and they don’t age very much. Just my luck.”

Andrew, “who is really rather an outdoors person, he likes insects and beehives and nature”, as well as Bella, who is of the same bent, have been responsible for Celia’s recent weekend in, rather unbelievably, a campsite. “The only problem was my hair, you see – which always has to be Carmen rollered,” she says. “And after the wind got it a few times, I had to keep this beret on because the hair was so gone. I don’t know what I looked like.” She did not bed down, as it happens, in a Celia Birtwell family tent, but alongside one in a camper van, “trying to watch my little grandchildren go to sleep”. There were logs for a fire and fresh water and a steep walk up to the White Horse.

Sensible shoes? “Clarks ballet shoes. Not very sensible but it was a bloody hot day, Ginny, and I didn’t have my boots on. I should send you a picture of my rock-climbing days. They were long ago, but anyway…”

Anyway, it was “jolly nice, sitting under the stars” with Andrew and her children and children’s children, and a dram or two of whisky.

The main reason that Birtwell is working so hard on all this branding and packaging, it transpires, is that she would like to buy a small house in the country, preferably near Ludlow where she and Andrew often go for weekends. She’s always really been indifferent to how she is perceived, and was quite content being out of the public eye, although she wishes she had done a bit more with her “’furnishing” – another “dreadful word, which I’d rather you didn’t use”.

There’s no question that she still likes the buzz of London but, “I do want a semi-rural life now. I think as you get older, you appreciate nature in a stronger way – it doesn’t argue with you as much as people maybe? And I think you need quieter times. Maybe I’m greedy but my dream would be able to afford a little retreat.” So forget the chiffon ruffles and pussy-bows, after the Celia Birtwell cagoule, can the hiking boots be far behind?