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?