JUSTINE PICARDIE pays tribute to designer Mary Quant after her death
The woman who invented modern fashion: JUSTINE PICARDIE pays tribute to designer Mary Quant after her death at the age of 93 and her iconic looks which still rock nearly 70 years on
The peaceful death of Mary Quant at the age of 93 should also be an occasion to celebrate her dynamic life as a great British fashion designer who transformed the way women looked and, in doing so, turned London into the beating heart of the Swinging Sixties.
But Quant’s story began before then, for she was a style visionary whose instinctive talent popularised everything from miniskirts and hot pants to skinny-rib jumpers and vibrant tights.
Many of Quant’s iconic creations still look as appealing today as they did when she started out as a designer in the 1950s.
She herself identified the origins of the inimitable Quant style in her prewar London childhood. In her autobiography, published in 2012, Quant described seeing another little girl, about the same age as her (eight or nine years old) at a dancing class they both attended: ‘A girl with bobbed hair, wearing a black skinny-rib sweater, seven inches of black pleated skirt, black tights under white ankle socks, and black patent shoes.’ It was this youthful ‘vision of chic’ that would inspire her future designs.
However, her parents, Welsh schoolteachers, were reluctant to allow her to study fashion; instead, she did a course on illustration at Goldsmiths, where she met Alexander Plunket Greene, a dashing young man-about-town who would become her husband and business partner. (‘Alexander was a hell of a womaniser,’ she subsequently wrote in her memoir, ‘and that makes life bumpy’, but she loved him and they remained together until his death in 1990.)
Pictured: Fashion designer Mary Quant, one of the leading lights of the British fashion scene in the 1960’s, having her hair cut by another fashion icon, hairdresser Vidal Sassoon
Pictured: Mary Quant and her husband Alexander Plenket Greene at her flat in London
Quant graduated from college at a time of austerity when postwar rationing was still strictly enforced; when the realm of fashion was the privileged preserve of a small minority of very rich customers who could afford to buy couture from Christian Dior in Paris or Norman Hartnell in Mayfair.
Her first job was on the fringes of this enclave, when she began an apprenticeship at a high-class milliner, Erik of Brook Street, next door to Claridge’s.
But rather than progressing from there to a traditional couture house, Quant created a new way of doing business when, in 1955, she opened her first shop, a boutique named Bazaar on the King’s Road.
She and her husband became central to what was known as ‘the Chelsea Set’ — a group of young artists, dancers, photographers, models and musicians who gathered at the restaurant that Plunket Greene opened in the basement beneath the boutique.
At first, Quant planned to stock her shop with clothes sourced on the wholesale market. But she quickly switched to her own, more original designs, and her talent was immediately showcased in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar.
As a former editor-in-chief of Bazaar, I like to think Quant’s appreciation of the magazine was reflected in her choice of name for her boutique. Certainly, Bazaar hailed the opening of the boutique in its September 1955 issue with a photograph of one of Quant’s first outfits: a polka-dot spotted tunic and matching culottes.
Pictured right: Mary Quant poses for a portrait session in 2009 in London
In 1957, she was featured again in Harper’s Bazaar with a distinctive haircut by the young, pioneering stylist Vidal Sassoon that would spawn myriad imitations: a sharp, angular bob that epitomised a wholly new look,
Just as Coco Chanel had done with such panache in the 1920s, Mary Quant thereby became her own best model, expressing a sense of youthful freedom, independence and liberation.
I must have been about the same age as those little girls in the long-ago dancing class when I was first struck by the visual appeal of the Quant look. As the daughter of a young, fashion-conscious mother, I grew up in 1960s London, and some of my earliest memories are of that flamboyant era: the Rolling Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park; the Beatles driving past our flat on Marylebone High Street in a psychedelic Rolls-Royce.
My sister and I had matching PVC coats –— miniature, lookalike versions of the Quant designs modelled by Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton — and we wore black patent shoes and contrasting tights beneath our Pop-Art patterned shift dresses, just like our mother’s. By the time I was 17, my favourite outfit was a black and white houndstooth mini-dress — vintage Mary Quant — that would still look as perfect on a teenager today as it did in the late 1970s, or indeed when it first appeared on the King’s Road six decades ago.
Mary Quant’s timeless legacy holds true to Coco Chanel’s famous observation that ‘fashion passes, style remains’.
A model displaying Mary Quant designs in London, 1967 (file photo)
Her outstanding contribution to British fashion was recognised in 2015, when she became a Dame in the New Year Honours list. And she lived long enough to see a major retrospective of her work at the V&A in 2019, a show that revealed her immense influence as a designer: by the end of the 1960s, it was estimated that seven million women had bought at least one of her products, thanks to her mass-market diffusion line (Ginger Group) and a deal with the U.S. departmentstore chain JC Penney.
The launch of a range of Mary Quant cosmetics — including the first waterproof mascara — extended her reach even farther, and in the 1970s she moved into colour co-ordinated bedlinen, wallpaper, paint and carpets.
I’m glad to say the hugely successful V&A exhibition — which has already travelled on tour to Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and Japan — will be opening in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum next month.
So with any luck, a new generation will be introduced to the woman who put the fun into fashion and who, with her irreverent wit and energy, utterly reshaped the old, rigid sartorial codes.
Dame Mary Quant deserves to be remembered as a genius — an overused description nowadays, but entirely apt for this true pioneer.
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