Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Now, this is exciting. Textile designer, Celia Birtwell has a book coming out in October. Woo hoo! Birtwell's fabulous career has spanned five decades, though she's most well-known for being married to Ossie Clarke in the seventies. The pair made some of the best dreamy chiffon dresses, ever. Designs loved by the rock and roll crowd, including Bianca Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and Pattie Boyd.
Not that we have room for more books at That's Not My Age Mansions, the library/Habitat shelving unit is full. I even bought the Blog Widower a Kindle to try and cut down on the clutter. But now I need to make space for Celia Birtwell - I'm going to have to get rid of some of his Peter Ackroyds:
In June this year, the 70-year-old designer was awarded a CBE for services to the fashion industry, and not before time. Blimey, even my mum - who knows nothing about fashion - knows who Celia Birtwell is. But that's because I bought her this gardening tool kit from the V&A a couple of Christmases ago:
Anyhow. That's Not My Age was lucky enough to have a quick chat about the book with author Dominic Lutyens - who is a brilliant writer and a bit of an expert on seventies style.
1. How did you get involved in the Celia book? Did she approach you? Was it because of your 70s book?
I was on a press trip to France organised by Sahra Gott, who later set up Celia's book deal, and I got on very well with her. I told her about my book, 70s Style and Design, co-written with Kirsty Hislop, and she and I got talking about where she went shopping in the 70s: from Portobello Market to Biba and Escalade (an ultra-hip shop in Knightsbrige where my own mother used to have her hair cut). Soon after, Sahra phoned me and asked me for lunch with Celia near her Notting Hill shop to discuss the book. I didn’t really think anything would come of it, but I later got a call saying she wanted me to write the text. I had interviewed Celia for the 70s book, but I’m not sure if that helped swing things. I guess they must have factored in that I knew quite a lot about fashion from that era, I’d interviewed lots of Celia’s contemporaries for the 70s book, and knew a lot about that milieu.
2. I read that Celia doesn't really like talking about the Ossie years too much, so how did you deal with that? Did you have to coax her over tea and biscuits?
That’s true. I think it’s difficult for Celia to talk about them as they were traumatic, though we talked a lot about her collaboration with him as a designer. She was honest about the fact that her life with him was very difficult and stormy. But Celia didn’t want a scurrilous, kiss-and-tell book so I didn’t probe much into those personal matters. Essentially, it was her book and she decided not to go down the route of, say, the notorious Ossie Clark Diaries, a tome which shocked many by its bitchiness. She didn’t want to rake up all those memories again, let alone immortalise them in her book. She wanted the book to be a celebration of her life and work.
3. How long did it take you to research/write the book? She's big friends with David Hockney isn't she? Did you talk to him as part of your research?
It took about a year to research and an intensive five months to write. Yes, Celia has been really good friends with David Hockney since about 1969. He was the best man at her small, intimate wedding to Ossie that year. Ossie’s sister Kay, a jazz singer, was the only other guest. I interviewed Hockney at his studio in west London. Celia was there, too. It had taken a while for her to pin him down as he was pretty elusive, but it was worth the wait. I was quite late to meet him as one of the tube lines on my way there was closed, so I was really worried that I’d seriously annoyed him, but he was very charming – in a very good mood that day.
4. Do you know what Celia's going to do next?! Any ideas if there's something in the pipeline? And did you get a chance to go through the archives at all?
Celia once mentioned she’d like to collaborate with some high-end shops, but I have no idea if that’s still so or what her next project is, though she’s showing this September at the interiors fair Decorex. Yes, I looked at all her fabulous sketchbooks – she was very prolific between the years of about 1967 to 1975. Celia, Quadrille’s creative director Helen Lewis and I spent hours going through them all, choosing our top favourites, though Celia had the final say on them. I didn’t look through her photo archive; Celia made her own choices about what she used from that.
5. How would you describe Celia Birtwell?
Celia has a very strong personality and her humour can be entertainingly barbed. I was unsure at first how we’d get on – after all, we saw each other very often and spent hours together, a test in itself – but we really hit it off. She’s a mix of things: very chatty, warm, generous, witty, rather maternal – and, yes, amusingly mischievous. She’s also quite old-school in the sense that she’s not desperate to court the media; she’s modest and low-key. She’s always done her own thing and others have promoted her more than herself, though she’s always worked extremely hard and is very talented and disciplined.
If you're a Celia Birtwell fan, check out this fantastic interview in the Sunday Telegraph.
‘Celia Birtwell’ by Celia Birtwell with Dominic Lutyens, will be published by Quadrille on October 3rd (£30, hardback). For more information, go to www.quadrille.co.uk.
Celia Birtwell will be showing at Decorex International, 25th – 28th September 2011 go to www.celiabirtwell.com
Celia Birtwell photo: Telegraph