Interview: Mary Quant, fashion designer

Mary Quant, pictured in 1964, with Vidal Sassoon. Picture: Getty
Mary Quant, pictured in 1964, with Vidal Sassoon. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

THE mod-mother of the swinging sixties, Mary Quant shook up British fashion with the invention of the mini. but her memoir isn’t all sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll

“You’ve been Sassooned!” exclaims Mary Quant as she arrives half an hour early at the London boutique hotel where she’s asked to meet. Before she sits down, she announces: “We’ve both been Vidal Sassooned,” shaking her sharp, geometric bob, which is the colour of blazing autumn leaves, and comparing our haircuts. “Don’t our barnets look good?” she laughs.

It’s an age before I can get a word, let alone a question, in edgewise as Quant chats about her lovely friend Vidal – “the nicest man in the world” – and tells me which Sassoon salon I should go to in London, or rather her beloved Chelsea, which is where we meet; then spelling out the name of her stylist for me.

We have bonded over our bobs.

We bond even further when I tell Quant – Mod-mother and icon of the Swinging Sixties, whose leggy, mini-skirted designs, along with Sassoon’s architectural haircuts and the Pill, changed women’s lives forever – that I still own two original Quant dresses. Her black jersey mini-dress, which the Royal Mail put on its British Design Classics stamps in 2009, and a khaki-and-yellow mini-shift, with zipped epaulettes. I wore them, with poker-straight fringe, kohl-rimmed eyes and PVC boots, as a junior reporter back in the day, shocking whiskery old sub-editors.

Ah, as someone recently noted, the shock of the knee!

“Oh, how marvellous. You must hang on to everything. I must say I was hugely flattered and thrilled when they put that black dress on the first-class stamp, the way they photographed it and put it together was so chic,” she enthuses.

When it comes to chic, Quant has cornered the market. She’s the woman who revolutionised British fashion, taking it from quaint to Quant. For her the thigh was the limit – she got women out of stockings and suspenders and into patterned tights. She invented hot pants, waterproof mascara and the Booby Trap seamless bra. Described by the late Bernard Levin as the high priestess of Sixties fashion, she was 78 on 11 February. “So I’ve heard,” she sniffs, in rare nippy-sweetie mode. “I don’t have birthdays.”

For a woman in her eighth decade and the grandmother of son Orlando (42) and wife Bona’s three children (11, ten and nine) she looks absolutely fabulous, if a tad arthritic when she walks. She’s tanned, sooty-eyed, petite and reed-slim – a subject we shall return to – with a shy but sassy manner, and she laughs a lot. She’s also naturally curious and can’t stop twisting the conversation to ask me questions. She orders a large glass of pinot grigio and a black coffee. “Shall we make that for two?” she queries.

It’s a bitterly cold day in London and she’s been chauffeured from Surrey, where she still lives in the sprawling house built as a “picnic folly” by an aunt of her late husband and soulmate, the aristocratic Alexander Plunket Greene (APG). The Duke of Bedford and Bertrand Russell were his cousins.

Still thoroughly Mod-ern Mary, she’s dressed in pin-striped trousers and matelot sweater, accessorised with a large chunky belt and sheepskin boots. She’s carrying a small, black backpack – “it’s very old” – stamped with her trademark five-petalled daisy.

Quant has now chronicled her “lovely, fun” life in a new book. Anyone expecting shocking revelations about sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll will be disappointed. She was a one-man woman, despite APG’s excessive drinking, gambling and womanising.

Of course, drugs were everywhere in the Sixties, she acknowledges, and some brilliant talents were wasted, but she was terrified of illegal substances. “In any case, I was much too busy working,” she says.

As for the sex, well, there’s the famous story about how she encouraged APG to trim her pubic hair into a heart shape and dyed it green, and how after she made the revelation she was served heart-shaped steak tartare in a restaurant. Which led to friendship with John Lennon, who “started sending me other ideas of various shapes I could try – and no, I’m not telling what they were,” she laughs. They became “affectionate friends” and there was gossip about an affair. “Which, sad to say, as in the case of the dashing French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, was unfortunately not true.”

Mary Quant: My Autobiography is her second book; she published Quant By Quant in 1966. Her latest tome is a behind-the-seams look at her cataclysmic designs and the Sixties, revealing why they will never go out of vogue. Forget We’ll Take Manhattan, the recent BBC 4 drama about photographer David Bailey and his model muse Jean Shrimpton. Instead, read Quant if you want to know about the fashion and pop culture youthquake that shook up this country.

“Jean Shrimpton was the most beautiful of all the models I have known,” writes Quant. “To walk down the King’s Road, Chelsea, with Shrimpton was like walking through the rye. Strong men just keeled over right and left as she strode up the street. I remember Bailey telling me it was a strain photographing actresses and film stars after the Shrimp, because they could not touch her for beauty. Shrimpton herself seemed to have no awareness of her extraordinary looks.”

Did Quant like her? “Oh yes, very much,” she replies. After We’ll Take Manhattan is screened, Quant emails to tell me she thought the drama “terribly well done, apart from Clare Rendlesham”, referring to the legendary, Cruella de Vil-ish Vogue fashion editor, played as the villain of the piece. Clearly, she was not scary enough. “I lived in fear of [her] for at least three years when she virtually lived with Alexander and me. Alexander and, of course, Bailey seemed to be the only men who ever learnt to deal with her and did,” she says.

It must have been a spooky experience to watch the programme, which ended with Shrimpton (Karen Gillan) being feted by New York fashion mavens, wearing Mary Quant, since Quant has always maintained she never looks back, always to the future. She has a huge archive, most of which is with the V&A Museum, but never kept diaries or journals, she confides.

Dredging up vivid memories of the past for her book has been sheer pleasure, she insists, despite having to revisit some painful times, such as the death of her larger-than-life husband at the age of 57 in 1990, after an operation for pancreatic disease. He drank far too much, she confesses. “It killed him. But, yes, he had an enormous appetite for life, for everything. He was simply wonderful.”

She couldn’t bear to write more than a few paragraphs about APG’s death and still mourns their lost years together. “It’s true what I write in the book, that I will never get over Alexander’s exit; I have never stopped loving him,” she says. “But haven’t I been a lucky woman?” she continues after a pause. “I’ve had the most marvellous time, so much fun. And, yes, I suppose I do feel rather proud.”

One of the enchanting aspects of her autobiography is her recollection of what she wore and when. “Of course I remember everything I’ve ever worn,” she says. “Don’t you?”

When Quant, the daughter of two Welsh schoolteachers of mining stock, met APG she was wearing black mesh tights and some balloons, sitting on a float at a fancy dress ball at Goldsmiths College, where she was a student. APG wore his mother’s gold silk pyjamas and burgundy hipster drainpipes. He was “a 6ft 2in prototype for Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney rolled into one”. It was 1953.

“I was simply bowled over,” she writes. He said it was lust at first sight. They moved in together and became business partners, with their friend, the Scot Archie McNair, who took care of the legalities when they opened their shop, Bazaar, in the King’s Road, selling Quant’s arty designs. As hemlines soared, scandalised elderly colonels threw bricks through their shop windows. They set up the Ginger Group and began exporting to the United States, then Japan.

By the 1970s she was designing household goods alongside clothes: curtains, duvets and carpets for the Glasgow firm Templetons. After a miscarriage, their son Orlando was born. He’s obviously the light of her life. He works in computer marketing and when she talks about him and his family, her gamine features light up.

Her own marriage was turbulent and eccentric. The couple married in 1957, were together 24 hours a day and had some tempestuous rows. She tells me a couple of stories that aren’t in the book. One night after a row in a restaurant, she threw three bottles of vintage wine at APG. Another time, she shouted: “I’m, not having dinner with such a pompous, self-opinionated man like you. I’d rather dine with the restaurant cat.” She stormed to another table, ordering jugged hare and burgundy for herself and the cat, after tying a napkin around its neck. Her eyes sparkle at the memory and she laughs: “The really funny thing was the cat played along with it beautifully.”

Then she says quietly: “When Alexander died, I thought it was the end of everything, but work gets you through.” She resigned as director of her company after a Japanese buy-out in 2000, although she still feeds them her innovative ideas.

Being Mary, Mary quite contrary, she’s a city slicker but she’s also a countrywoman, tending her “intriguing” garden in Surrey, writing, hanging out in Chelsea and going to fashion shows. She particularly likes Jasper Conran’s designs – she’s known him since he was a babe in arms – and those of Stella McCartney and Chloe.

Dismissive of body fascism, she insists that clothes will always look better on thin women. “The bones are what matter; it’s beautiful bones that made Jean Shrimpton a great model. After the war, we were all skinny anyway, all that rationing and austerity. I never saw an obese person until I went to America. Of course, I’m greedy but I’ve always watched what I eat because I want to look good. I gave up butter, cream and sugar years ago.”

Today, she shares her life with former broadcaster Antony Rouse, who was a friend of APG. According to Antonia Fraser, he was “the most beautiful man at Oxford”. After APG died, Rouse came to see Quant and “just stayed”. She writes that they’d always flirted, that he has the loveliest feet she’s ever seen on any man and can beat both teams at the same time on University Challenge. She tells me that they are very, very happy together.

“I love life; it’s impossible for me to lose interest in it. I wake up every day and think, ‘Don’t let it stop,’” she says. “I never think about getting older because being alive is wonderful. Don’t you agree?”

Before we part I tell her I think it’s a disgrace that she has not been made a dame. After all, she liberated a generation, giving women freedom of movement while making them look sexy.

“Oh, but I’ve got the OBE,” she replies. “I got it in 1966, the same year as The Beatles. The press was ecstatic because British fashion had never achieved such honours before. I was thrilled; I still am.” She was “gonged” on the same day as Harold Pinter. They both got lost “out of sheer terror” in the long corridors at Buckingham Palace. “But, no, I don’t see myself as Dame Mary.”

She insists her driver, Gerard, take me back to the West End. We drop her off in Brompton Road; she gives me a hug and kisses me warmly. Then Gerard says what fun it is to work for a woman who still has such enthusiasm for life. We concur: “Mary Quant rocks.”

• Mary Quant: My Autobiography (Headline, £25).