Everybody’s Friend

According to a recent Evening Standard article, Debenhams has launched an Ossie Clark Revival Collection ‘with a mission to resurrect the legendary designer’s statement prints and fluid cuts’. Ossie Clark was the totemic designer of the 60s, a man who dressed rock stars and royalty, but when I came across him in 1996, his heyday was past and his resurrection was still years away.

I was a young barrister defending him on a charge of assaulting a police officer. The case, which was heard at Marylebone Magistrates Court, revolved around a display of petulance following a car accident. Clark had shoved the other driver, who turned out to be a plain clothes policeman. It was a fuss about nothing – but because the ‘assault’ was on a police officer, Ossie Clark looked to be going to prison.

At the time, Clark was very clearly down on his luck, living on benefits on a run-down estate. He was polite with me, but quiet and downcast, and accompanied at court by a much younger, very attentive male Brazilian lover. I took Clark’s instructions, and the hearing came to a close with a guilty plea. The case was adjourned for three weeks. I knew that Clark had been a clothes designer – only because he told me so – but I had no idea that he was the pre-eminent designer of his generation, friend to the Beatles, the Stones, The Who, friend to everybody. I only found that out back in chambers when somebody told me about him over a coffee.

I hadn’t thought about my brief, insignificant brush with Clark for many years, until I read of his ‘comeback’ in the Standard. When I did, I remembered my impression of him as a sad, resigned man, barely trying to resist his fall. Where, I remembered wondering, had his friends gone? Why was he not working anymore? I couldn’t quite understand how a man considered a genius was now penniless and almost alone. But at least his lover was looking after him. Thank goodness for Diego.

Three weeks after I represented him, Clark’s case came back before a stipendiary magistrate. I was in another court that day doing something else. Young barristers could be (and perhaps still are) almost interchangeable. So a plea in mitigation was made by the very able Janet Weeks. Sentence was passed and Clark was rightly spared prison. And shortly afterwards he was stabbed to death by the boyfriend. Diego, it turned out, was capable of more than kindness.

My memory tells me that Clark’s murder took place so soon after after the sentencing that had he been imprisoned he wouldn’t have been killed. I’m not really sure that’s right. It’s possible he died a while later and I’m conflating events to magnify my role. But my timing problem isn’t the real one. The real problem is that the “mission to resurrect” Ossie Clark comes several decades too late. Which probably illustrates the fickleness of fashion. And, in this case, of friendship too.

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