I started knitting at 8 years of age, at my family home in Gresford, North Wales.
Gresford is a small rural village and home to one of the seven wonders of Wales, the church bells. I used to do bell ringing there at 10 years old and was always careful to let the thick rope run through my hands and not to keep holding on, as you would end up in an almost certain death. Within the churchyard is a giant yew tee with a girth of almost 30 feet, that botanists have fixed with an age of more than 2000 years. That’s pretty old.
Sadly Gresford was also home to the biggest mining disaster in British history, when in 1934, two hundred and sixty six men and boys lost their lives. Their bodies were never recovered from beneath the coal seams. In 1982 I attended the opening of the Gresford Colliery memorial by Lady Diana, HRH Princess of Wales. This was her first official engagement having just become a princess. She looked really beautiful and crouched down to receive daffodils from the excited Welsh children. I would see Diana again fourteen years later in my fashion circles, when she came to talk to the leaders of British Fashion at an event in Lancaster House. I was standing right next to Jean Muir CBE. I loved Diana because she was beautiful and also seemed so down to earth, approachable and humble. I cried the day she died, like millions of others did around the world. Her funeral on television was also the first time I ever remember seeing my own father crying. Apart from when he woke up the day after my mum died. I had shared a bed with him that night to give him comfort.
My first creations were small knitted peggy squares, crafted in plain stitch. And then purl, once I’d got the hang of plain. These were made in New Zealand wool, hand-spun by my kiwi mum on an Ashford wooden spinning wheel. These natural, undyed, wool bales had travelled 11,337 miles from her family sheep farm, ‘Ngaputahi Station’ in the beautiful Pohangina valley, NZ. As a child Mum used to swim in the rivers there, which she said carried crystal clear water.
The NZ wool felt incredibly soft and comforting to me and having met the NZ sheep in person in 1973, when I was 4, I have always really loved the smell of sheep’s wool. My grandfather affectionally known as ‘GrandJack’ taught my brother and I how to blow the sheepdog whistle and round up the sheep on the far away hills in 1978. I still have that whistle hanging on my wall and it’s a bright red plastic and I love it. It’s forty-two years old now.
At 10 years of age, fascinated by the transformative process of wool knitting, I asked mum if I could create and design a 3D object. I was thinking of a jumper that I’d been designing with pencil crayons. Though mum suggested I design and knit a more humble functional object, that all the family would benefit from… a Tea Cosy. Mum helped me create it in pearl stitch. I chose a a striped design, using natural wool colours. It required a hole to access the handle and hole to access the spout. It felt a magical thing to do. It was the first object I ever designed and created with my own hands. Mum helped me along the way, sharing her knowledge and encouraging me. That made a big difference.
From such humble creative beginnings, I’d unknowingly sowed the seeds for a career in design. Enhanced by my love of sheep wool. It’s the reason I’m currently pursuing a role as an ambassador for the Campaign for Wool (NZ). The teacosy also provided a critical design education, as I realise with forty-three years of hindsight, it aligned to the Bauhaus School’s principles of form and function. The tea cosy was bespoke created to fit the form of the tea pot, with slit holes to hold onto the handle and the spout to pour the tea and its purpose being made in wool, was to the keep the tea warm in the teapot. A simple holistic philosophy that would become my lifetime work.
At 20, following a foundation in Art in Wrexham, North Wales, I pursued my academic studies at Bournemouth College of Art & Design. This was during the early 1990’s, a time of great social change in Britain. Buoyed by the vibrant music industry, it was an exciting era to be studying art and design at Art college. This led me to create a thesis on ‘Uniforms’, which I turned into a collaboration with my fellow art student Wolfgang Tillmans. Wolfgang’s stardom rocketed and am not at all surprised he is now a globally acclaimed photographer and fine artist, winning the Turner Prize. He was so good behind the camera, even at that young age.
Around that time I met my future Spanish wife Marta Narbona who was also studying fashion. Marta’s sister Carmen had a baby girl Patricia Ferran, who was the first human knew as a newborn baby. As a result I have always felt close to her. Though I didn’t realise her desire to perform around the breakfast table at a very young age and with me finding myself a part of her first tiny audience, would one day lead to Patsy winning the Laurence Olivier’s actress of the Year in 2019. Impressive stuff.
In 1992 I continued my studies at the Royal College of Art, gaining an MA in Fashion Menswear – the only Mens postgraduate degree course in the world at that time, which offered just 7 places. I trudged on foot through the two feet of deep snow and dropped my black portfolio off on Queen St. As the large wooden doors opened I saw a vision of a few thousand similar black portfolios stacked up in a high ceiling room and my heart sunk.
Luckily I got in. Wolfgang’s photographs had helped me.
Under the more intense spotlight of the RCA, I found himself oscillating in a higher profile arena, with some of the world’s most famous designers popping in and out of our class. When a tutor discovered I was Welsh, she left on my desk, on my last day of graduation, a piece of paper with the words ‘Welsh Fashion Awards’. This led to me showing my RCA graduate collection at the Savoy Hotel, London 1994. A title I went on to win in 1995, becoming the ‘Welsh Fashion Designer of The Year’. This prestigious competition was chaired by David Emanuel, who’d designed Princess Diana’s wedding dress, with fellow judges Shakira Caine, the wife of actor Michael Caine and Caroline Collis the daughter of Joan Burstein (Mrs B) who co-founded Browns of South Molton st.
While on stage I was asked by the host, TV presenter Jeff Banks “Are you Ossie Clark’s secret love child?” Though humorous, it wasn’t true. Though it did lead to me being filmed by the BBC for the populist programme ‘The Clothes Show’, a show on BBC1 with 8 million viewers, and hosted by Jeff. Jeff in his earlier life had married Sandie Shaw who sang ‘Puppet On A String’ with no shoes on and became the first British entry to win the Eurovision Song Contest.
This nationwide exposure led to me being invited, along with Philip Tracy, to represent the British Fashion Industry and Department of Trade & Industry at a ‘Action Japan’ event at the British Embassy in Tokyo, 1995. This in turn led to the president of Sanyo Shokai (Burberry’s licensing partner) making an approach to license the Toby Clark label in Japan. It was quite an honour for me as a postgraduate designer, only 6 months out of college. I actually turned the offer down.
This rapid interest in my creations helped me to establish my designer label TOBY CLARK, which retailed at leading designer stores in America, Asia and Europe. Notably selling my label to the Bursteins, owners of Browns of London, the Pressmans, owners of Barneys New York, Tom Marotta Vice President of Couture of Saks 5th Avenue, Sam Sugure the president of Anglobal, Japan, to Angela Quantrell fashion director of Liberty of London and to Shinsegae of Korea, whose Fashion Director advised me the Toby Clark label was the number #2 best seller behind Romeo Gigli.
During this period I won a number of business awards, including Welsh Young Entrepreneur of the Year, the silver medal at the British Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards and the UKFT Newcomers Award for Fashion Exports, presented to me by its patron HRH Princess Anne. She was wearing a white glove.
My RCA graduate collection was inspired by School uniforms , which prompted a 6 page editorial on School Fashion in the launch edition of Arena Homme Plus+ which became a really important style magazine around the world. This editorial was styled by David Bradshaw and photographed by Paolo Roversi. David had worked on Madonna’s video Rain and Paolo happened to be my favourite photographer working in fashion at that time. I felt overwhelmed but also incredibly excited.
The Daily Telegraph’s Fashion Editor Hilary Alexander, featured a full page editorial on Toby Clark for the launch of London Fashion Week in 1997. The article proclaimed me as the new Jean Muir. I found that quite tricky as I didn’t wear lipstick or have a bob hair cut. And especially as before the interview Hilary told me such comparison would be the death of me. The team at Jean Muir were understandably not amused either, as Jean, an icon of British fashion had sadly died a few months earlier. I learned then that some journalists see ‘the story’ and the sale of their newspaper as being of more importance, than the individuals they may exploit, for their own gain.
At 29, I founded the design consultancy Clark & Narbona with my then Spanish wife Marta Narbona. I was invited by Rogel Saul the founder of Mulberry to help relaunch Mulberry menswear at Pitti Uomo, Florence. This proved an enjoyable challenge, though I had always admired Margaret Howell, which fortuitously led to me being appointed as Margaret’s head Mens designer.
At MH I would dedicate 12 years, helping Margaret to establish her Mens business into an international brand. At that time the total group revenue was circa £70M a year, with about 10% generated in Europe and 90% in Japan, controlled by Anglobal Ltd, a division of Sanei-International Co Ltd. , TSI Holdings the parent company.
At 36, my creative steer on Margaret Howell’s Menswear led to MH receiving three nominations by the British Fashion Council for the title of – British Menswear Designer Of The Year at the British Fashion Awards. This period included projects for the Japanese company MUJI and designing the Uniform for the V&A Museum in South Kensington. While designing for Margaret, I was interviewed by Alain De Botton for his book title ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’. This was interesting as Alain seemed as interested in my thoughts of the human figure without clothing, as my articulation of how important the right shape and cut of a collar on a man’s shirt is.
At 40, I met my current fiancé Maree Ballantine a New Zealander and re-branded my design company to Toby etc.
I became a co-Founder of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, the only Factory brand in London making selvedge denim jeans, with its own local allotment growing Japanese indigo plants. The founding methodology incorporated a factory space with chefs, weavers, dyers, leather makers and emerging craftsmen as part of a holistic community-focused enterprise. It was a game changer for manufacturing in Britain.
I retain a personal interest in philanthropic practice and community ownership. I was the architect of a campaign, to help secure 11,337 digital signatures to safeguard the Racecourse Ground, Wrexham (The Oldest International Football Ground in the World) within the Welsh Government’s Local Development plan. This activism helped secured the future of the sports stadium for the community and deter property speculators from purchasing the land with potential development value of £25M. My father was a former director and Chairman of Wrexham Football Club and my lifelong love for my home town club inspired my actions.
At 50, having established myself as a clothing designer, brand strategist and quiet activist of environmental concerns, I continue to pursue opportunities within sustainable and ethical parameters, to preserve the natural balance of our eco-system. My current thinking seeks to reconnect the values “of-the-land” to a growing number of post millennium urbanites.
I plan to do this in Aotearoa, help NZ brands with ecology in their hearts grow into Asian, European and American markets.
At 51 am wearing the same clothes everyday for the rest of my life. I will patch repair them as they change state. I do this for environmental reasons and it’s a project admired by Lidewij Edelkoort who would like me to be part of her World Hope Forum.
Am currently currently writing my autobiography – The Magpie Who Listened and Helped to Heal Me and making mandalas for free, with love for our planet.
On 16 July 2020 Toby was named an Ambassador for the Campaign For Wool (NZ)
As a small lagniappe to thank you for reading my biography, here is a link to one of my favourite songs as a teenager, back in the glorious 1980s.