Mary Quant is back in Chelsea, the place she put on the map half a century ago.
Back then, England was swinging like a pendulum…it was all Twiggy and The Beatles; the dawn of a bright new mad, mod world.
And Mary Quant was right at the beating heart of it all. From her King’s Road boutique called Bazaar, Quant invented hot pants and the Chelsea Girl look, helped popularise the mini-skirt, created the skinny rib sweater and changed the face of make-up for ever.
‘I mostly felt, my God, what a marvellous life you had, you are very fortunate. I think to myself, you lucky woman – how did you have all this fun?’ said Mary Quant, who has just written her autobiography
She designed the kind of sexy, affordable clothes her arty friends wanted to wear; tiny tunic dresses, knickerbockers, flared hipster trousers. Then everyone else wanted them, too — and the effect they had was sensational.
This incredible tale of the rise and rise of one of the greatest fashion innovators is chronicled in a new book.
The celebrated designer’s new autobiography reveals what it was like to be at the epicentre of the youthquake that dragged the fashion out from the shadows of post-war austerity to blink in the can-do glare of the new pop culture.
It also sheds light on the definitive relationship of Quant’s life…her tempestuous but happy marriage to her business partner, Alexander Plunket Greene.
She had the designs, APG — as she calls him in her book — had a knack for zany marketing ideas that chimed perfectly with the age.
He named Quant’s eye shadows Jeepers Peepers, called a range of gel cosmetics Jelly Babies and sold them in tiny baby bottles, dreamed up Pop Sox and called her new range of natural-shaped bras Booby Traps.
Looking back on all this does not make the modest Miss Quant feel proud, just rather amazed.
‘I mostly felt, my God, what a marvellous life you had, you are very fortunate,’ she says. ‘I think to myself, you lucky woman — how did you have all this fun?’
Chief among her revolutionary innovations were tights for mini-skirts and waterproof mascara; all of a sudden women could cry, swim and run for the bus while still looking good.
The importance of these things, individually and collectively, should not be overlooked.
There are some who have been given damehoods for less, although Quant is merely grateful for the opportunities that came her way.
‘It was the spirit of the time. Yes, I worked very hard, but I loved the work, it was delicious.’
Today, her Bazaar is just another coffee shop, selling hot pastries instead of hot pants. Ironic really, given Mary Quant’s trenchant fashion-world view on the eternal size zero debate.
‘It is the bones of the woman wearing them that make dresses look wonderful…it is the bones, when they jut out at the right place. There is no perfect size, it is all about the bones in the end,’ she says.
But if you are a size 14, I suggest, then you won’t have many bones jutting out at all.
‘No. So it is worth getting them,’ she retorts. ‘Of course, I remember when everybody was thin. It wasn’t until I went to America in the Sixties that I saw anyone who wasn’t skinny thin. At the end of the war here, everyone was thin, thin, thin.’
And for the record, Mary Quant still thinks Chelsea is rather exciting.
‘Oh yes, I still like the King’s Road. It is very alive, it is a hustle of things from different countries and so on. It is lovely,’ she says.
Miss Quant has been driven up from her country home in Surrey for the day. She will be 78 next week and is slightly crimped at the edges by an arthritic complaint, but she remains instantly recognisable.
Sitting at a corner table in the hotel lounge, she is small and chic in her Breton sweater, pin-striped trousers and sheepskin boots.
Her biker-type studded leather belt is a Quant original, with her trademark daisy motif suspended on a silver chain. Lightly tanned, she is wearing a lot of smoky-grey eye shadow and is the best advertisement for her maxim that style never goes out of style.
Indeed, she still has exactly the same hairdo; an auburn version of the symmetrical bob she helped make famous in ye olde Swinging London.
Originally it was cut by Vidal Sassoon himself, now she has it cut in a Vidal Sassoon salon in Chelsea by one of his employees. Love that loyalty!
Shall we have a coffee? Mary looks a little disappointed. Coffee and perhaps some… wine? That’s better.
She orders a glass of dry white and an espresso, then ignores the espresso. However, perhaps one of the reasons why this daughter of two Welsh schoolteachers survived the maelstrom of the Sixties intact was that she was always grounded, sensible, disciplined. She is quite a shy person, but also very controlled.
‘I have been on a diet since 1962,’ she says, citing black coffee, tomatoes, avocadoes, basil and olive oil as her slimming staples.
‘You can gobble up as much of them as you like,’ she says.
And when all around her were off their heads on various substances way back when, she would eschew drugs for the occasional fortifying glass of Sancerre.
‘Stick to some lovely white wine or red wine. You don’t need to get into that dangerous stuff,’ she says, raising her glass.
‘I always found drugs terrifying, and in the Sixties they were everywhere.’
Once when she was exhausted from finishing collections, her doctor prescribed amphetamines.
‘He should have told me to go to bed early and stop working so hard and then staying up all night, but instead he gave me purple hearts.
‘For a few weeks, life was terrifying. I would be crossing the road and the pavement was roaring up to meet me. Too dangerous for words.’
Anyway, work was Mary Quant’s drug of choice. Work and her beloved APG, whom she met at Goldsmiths’ College of Art in London.
In her book, she describes him as a ‘a 6ft 2in prototype for Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney rolled into one’.
He had long hair, played jazz trumpet and wore his mother’s gold silk pyjamas to class.
Later, the couple once hit the headlines when she revealed that he trimmed her pubic hair into a heart shape. A waiter once served her a heart-shaped steak tartare in silent tribute, John Lennon sent her sketches of suggestions for new shapes.
‘I’m not going to tell you what they were, that is between John and I,’ she says.
She moved into Belgravia with APG, a life-affirming bon viveur whose entrepreneurial skills were perfectly matched to the freewheeling times.
Yet if there is a dark side to the Sixties, perhaps it is distilled in Plunket Greene and his appetites, not to mention his early death.
He adored Mary but was a dedicated womaniser who also drank too much.
He wouldn’t change his ways — not for doctors, nor for love.
In 1988, Plunket Greene was told he had only two years to live, unless he stopped drinking. He died in 1990, at the relatively young age of 57.
‘It was unbearable,’ says Quant of his death.
‘Alexander drank too much, which had to do with his death.
‘His doctors suggested he should stop drinking, but he didn’t. He didn’t want to. He loved wine and drinking.
‘He drank too much but he said that life wasn’t worthwhile without wine, that was his attitude.
‘I am sure it killed him in the end. It killed his father, too.
‘It is a very inherited thing. I don’t know how much he drank, I never counted the bottles. But he loved wine and was always topping up.’
They had a son together, Orlando, who is now 42 and works in computer marketing.
He is married with three young children, making Quant a rather glamorous granny.
Through good times and bad, she never stopped loving APG, even though the marriage was difficult.
‘Well, the word I would use is riotous, not difficult.
‘He was a monstrous womaniser, so it was noisy and bumpy. We had great battles about it. Did he sleep with any of my friends? I am sure he did. I turned a blind eye as much as one could, then I would hurl things. It was wonderful, though.
‘He was loyal at the same time, though. Unfaithful but loyal.’
How does that work? Quant just laughs. During the most turbulent times, she started seeing a psychiatrist — as indeed did her husband — and says today that it helped enormously; it gave her confidence and made it easier for her to understand his behaviour. Not that she was ever too understanding.
Although she blames herself for being too focused on work and not paying him enough attention, she was never a designer doormat.
‘Don’t ignore it,’ is her advice.
‘No, no. You must throw things and make a hell of a fuss. Of course, he would always promise never to do it again. There was unhappiness, but I have to say there was also a great deal of happiness, too.
‘Don’t be hard on him, it was just the spirit of the times.
‘He was such fun to be with. He was the best dancer that ever happened, he really was. And a terrific looker.’
The couple moved in glamorous circles (they went to the wedding of Princess Margaret and the photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones).
Around this time, Quant was the first designer to use PVC as a fabric and when Armstrong-Jones was despatched by a magazine to take pictures of her in the hot new wet-look clothes, the Princess became convinced they were having an affair — but that was never Quant’s style.
‘I was a bit slow on that really. I was too besotted with Alexander. He was pretty blinding,’ she says, cheerfully.
So what does she make of the newest member of the Royal Family?
Quant says she is a very big admirer of the Duchess of Cambridge, approving of her fondness for ‘a good, light navy blue’ and ability to wear a hat ‘at the right angle’.
‘She has the good sense to stay in marvellous shape and that is wonderful. I am afraid that if you are going to be photographed in fashion, you have to be slim. She does all that and enjoys it and wears things with a kind of flourish and a gusto which makes other people feel happy to see it.
‘She is perfect, we certainly have the right one here. There is nothing boring about her. You know by the way she puts her hat on that she is not a boring woman.’
Mary Quant is a very agreeable woman, both sweet and slightly sharp, like a spritz of grapefruit juice.
Many, many years have passed since the days when she would skip along to Quaglino’s for dinner with Alexander, wearing her first little dresses that she made herself after attending cutting classes.
To ‘get the gist’ of sizing, she bought Butterick patterns and ‘chopped off what I didn’t want to get the shapes I wanted’.
Less than a year later, she and APG launched their own shop and Butterick asked her to design for them.
‘That was a hell of a boost,’ she says.
Now though, Alexander has gone — and so, too, have Mary’s rights to her name, which is used by a Japanese company that manufactures clothes and cosmetics under her imprimatur and trademark.
After being ousted, Quant has no direct involvement any more, just the occasional supply of an idea or a thought.
All these years of success upon success, she claims, have not left her a fabulously wealthy woman.
‘Well, I have a marvellous ability to get through money. And lawyers are quite good at removing it, too, aren’t they?’ she says.
Today, she lives in the house in the country that was left to Alexander by one of his relatives, and she still sleeps in the bed that they bought when they first got married.
Now she shares it with the man in her life, Antony Rouse.
Originally a friend of both hers and Alexander’s, Antonia Fraser once called him ‘the most beautiful man at Oxford’.
Mary says he has the most beautiful feet she has ever seen on a man.
‘After Alexander died, he just gradually moved in,’ she writes.
She tells me: ‘It is all terribly lovely because he is just as obsessed with Alexander as I am. He adored him too. He totally understands.’
by Helena Bryanlith