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Deborah Orr speaks to Mary Quant

Deborah Orr died this weekend at the age of 57. Here's some of her early work for the New Statesman: a 1990 interview with ground-breaking fashion designer Mary Quant,

In the early years of her career when she was in her 20s, the award-winning journalist Deborah Orr, who has died at the age of 57, worked as a critic for the New Statesman. Below is reproduced an interview Orr carried out with ground-breaking fashion designer Mary Quant, originally published on 19 October 1990.

Thirty-six years ago, the only daughter of a pair of strait-laced Welsh schoolteachers opened the world’s first fashion boutique. In doing so, she split the style atom, invented street fashion, ushered in the sexual revolution, put Chelsea’s King’s Road on the map, and otherwise gave a firm, free-thinking push to the permissive pendulum that called itself the swinging Sixties. Or so the story goes.

Mary Quant brought the mini to the masses. But it was first designed by Courrèges. She gave us thick, brightly patterned tights, but via Balenciaga. See-through dresses spent a brief honeymoon with St Laurent, grew bolder in the hands of Ossie Clark, before Quant passed them on to the people. Such details went largely unnoticed in the Sixties, when Quant was hailed as the liberator of style, dominatrix of a revolution. One fashion editor went so far as to declare that, “Quant could have been the fashion czarina of the decade but she loved the tyranny of the masses too much.”

As criticisms go, Quant could do a lot worse than that one, imbuing her as it does with unlimited talent, political motivation and social conscience. It’s hard to discern such qualities in the naive, seemingly hermetically sealed 56-year-old who presents herself for a rarish interview at Mary Quant Limited’s Chelsea premises in 1990. The occasion for the painfully shy designer’s acquiescence to grilling is her winning of the Fashion Hall of Fame award, a little-known frippery inaugurated by the British Design Council, which has been announced amid resounding lack of interest during British Fashion Week for the last two years. “It’s fun, lovely,” says Quant, OBE since 1966, of her latest, but hardly greatest, gong. “Oh yes, I mean, it’s fun, I’m pleased.”

Fun, in Quant’s book, is life’s great acid test. The current Sixties revival is “great for me… tremendous fun. But things are more sophisticated now. It’s not a replay.” She is happy to sit back and accept the credit for the creation of working-class youth culture. But the advent of punk, representing, among other things, a gripping sartorial statement from good old working-class culture, is dismissed as “interesting and individual, with lots of ideas percolating into mainstream fashion”. Vivienne Westwood’s contribution to British fashion landscape is “lots of fun and witty ideas”. Having 150 shops in Japan (though just two in London) is “fun”, as are shops generally. And, although “there have been terrible retail problems, the very short long view is very good”. Presumably, that’s the short longer view from Mount Fuji.

Any suggestion that there may be more in the way of socio-political significance to fashion than the fun factor is greeted with quite genuine shock and horror. The well-publicised argument, presently the property of Naomi Wolf, that the demands of the body-conscious fashion industry could be helping to create the ever-increasing incidence of anorexia, leaves Quant almost speechless. Her voice drops to a pained whisper. “I don’t think so, I think it’s a bit more complicated than that, don’t you? It obviously has to do with growing up, with relationships… It is more to do with the family problems that we have now.”

And, talking of family problems, Thatcherism’s influence on Britain’s fourth largest industry, guaranteed to bring a nasty gleam to the eyes of most fashion pundits, is looked on much more charitably by Quant. “It has been good for manufacturers. Things have certainly improved vastly. Standards have come on no end. The fabrics available now are wonderful. I work in Europe and Japan too, but most of our manufacturing is done here, because it’s way ahead.”

The suggestion that such technological innovations – chiefly the widespread use of Lycra, pioneered by French company DuPont – have little to do with Thatcherism and the wider economic and cultural climate in Britain engenders an even more bizarre reply. “Technology and culture are the same thing. Technological advancement is the culture of our time.”

This kind of batty idea was lapped up by the Sixties press if it fell from the own-brand-lip-glossed lips of Quant. After all, batty ideas were her stock-in-trade: make-up pills to stain the eyelids, high-waist pinafores made from sheet metal, tights with built-in soles. But there were spot-on ideas too: kohl pencils, “make-up that could be used as easily as a lighter”, waterproof cosmetics. She remains unwilling to admit that it has been the make-up not the clothing side of her business that has endured, insisting that it is all part and parcel of the “total look”. Nevertheless, such a stream of untrammelled ideas, good, bad, indifferent, shooting off in all directions, suggests a fecund, undisciplined, child-like imagination.

Quant once said: “I grew up not wanting to grow up. Growing up seemed terrible… To me it was awful; children were free and sane and grown-ups were hideous.” The Peter Pan of fashion seems to have got her wish. Her boundless enthusiasm when proudly displaying her latest range of clothing, a well-made but tired-looking collection of variations on Madonna’s stage clothes over the past five years is touching. This very successful, very wealthy woman comes across as infinitely likeable, terribly fragile.

Which, no doubt, is one secret of her success. From the start, in 1954, when she sold her clothes direct to the public, through the famous Bazaar boutique, she was being protected and looked after by a pair of doting friends. The shop was tremendously innovative, but it was the brainchild not of Quant, but of Archie McNair, who had already brought the first espresso bar to London. Most of the money – and Quant – was supplied by Alexander Plunket Greene, Quant’s boyfriend from Goldsmiths’s art college days, who had come into £5,000 at the age of 21. She married Plunket Greene, who recently died, and remained in partnership with him and McNair until McNair’s retirement. 

The two men in the triumvirate deemed it their job to, as McNair said, “protect Mary’s talent”. Plunket Greene was more forthcoming: “She gets ideas, and knows herself that half of them are crazy, path-finding sort of exercises.” It was McNair who weighed up the ideas, judged their likely success or failure, and marketed them. “We have never allowed Mary to design something she didn’t believe in,” McNair once declared. Nor, one can be sure, was Mary allowed to design anything that he didn’t believe in.

The existence of the back-room boys does dilute the Quant mythology as Sixties icon and fashion genius. She becomes more fashion magpie, given time and space to indulge her fantasies, shrewdly censored by the marketing men. So what? Maybe Quant wouldn’t have been Quant without the dynamic duo behind her. But they sure as hell couldn’t have operated without her enthusiastic, riotous, messy, improvisation. And when it comes right down to it, Mary Quant, blessed and beautiful child, not mother, of the Sixties, appears to have pulled off a pretty witty, fun-packed life.