Over the telephone, Mary Quant could be just about any very nice, old lady, happy to chat and terribly polite, but actually, she’s one of the most influential and successful fashion designers of the last century. She tells me that she draws a great deal of happiness from gardening, these days, as casually as she discusses the Queen awarding her an Order of the British Empire in 1966.
“We were overwhelmed by the news, to tell you the truth. It was a big deal — quite terrifying, at the time, really. There’s a little band that plays at the palace, though, while they’re handing everything out, and I thought it was terribly inappropriate — hilarious, really — that they were playing ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’!” She laughs — a warm, infectious laugh that shreds any assumptions of physical or spiritual frailty that I now realize I’ve brought to the conversation, perhaps because I’ve read interviews with other legendary designers in various stages of retirement, who don’t seem to possess the same zeal as Quant. She continues: “I think the Queen has a tremendous sense of humor, though I doubt I’ll ever see her in one of my minis.”
Quant received the OBE for her “outstanding contribution to the fashion industry,” a contribution that started off modestly enough with a boutique store, Bazaar, on King’s Road in London, and went on to include the popularization of the mini-skirt and colored tights, during the sixties, the invention of hot pants when the aforementioned designs began to wane in popularity, and a makeup empire that remains prominent in Japan today. Not to mention, funnily enough, the introduction and popularization of the duvet in Britain.
Considering the resurgence of mod-influenced styles, this season, it seemed timely to chat to Quant and get her take on it all.
“I have noticed the trend, and frankly, it’s very disturbing,” she explains with comic despair. “I thought the sixties were over, but it’s like, “It’s happening again!” I suppose it still works, the styles that I liked. There was a sort of fusion between masculine fabrics, like herringbone and the Prince of Wales check, and feminine styles, and enjoying them both, and putting them together to exaggerate the other, you know? It’s a way of underlining both.”
“They are very satisfactory combinations, put simply,” she explains, when asked why she thinks her designs gained such popularity as to have become ubiquitous. “The combinations of fabrics and new cuts that I put together are still pleasing to the eye. But it shocked people, at the time — they were so shocked! I mean, I know part of that came from the mini-skirt — but it wasn’t that shocking to me. There were people beating on the windows of my shop with outrage. They were banging on the windows with their umbrellas and their fists. It got to them in some way, what I was doing.”
Did she ever consider pulling the offending items, like the mini-skirt, from her store? “No! They were selling! Women loved it! And women were being brought in by their boyfriends, who would say, “You must have one! You must!” Their boyfriends were leading them in, like mad. The men loved it as much as the women did!”
Quant is happy to discuss her rise to prominence; not for a second does she give the impression of being tired of telling the story, despite likely having told it to so many interviewers in the past. She could easily be talking about an exciting occurrence from the previous day.
“It all happened so quickly, you know,” she gushes. “Before I knew it, JCPenney, one of the biggest manufacturers in America, contacted us. I didn’t even know who they were, and then I was told that they had 1865 stores! They sent a young man to find out what the hell I was up to, because it was causing so much excitement. The young people loved it! I then designed for JCPenney, as well. They were wonderful to work for. I was constantly commuting, going back and forth between here and America, all the time. And then Japan came in too, and going there for the first time was just so exciting too! They loved the Mary Quant brand, and they wear it so well. They’re very, very stylish, aren’t they, the Japanese? They put it together so well, and they enjoy it. They have such confidence and zest, but they can be quite shy, and I’m quite shy, so we’re a match made in heaven, really.”
Considering her immense workload at the time — designing her own sell-out collections as well as her work for JCPenney, plus her work in Japan and various countries in Europe — and the stress of commuting, it would be perfectly acceptable for her to admit that it all became a little tiring. The truth, however, is that she genuinely seems excited about it all still, which makes her a rare breed. Not many could have dealt with building a fashion empire, where the fashion industry’s ever-changing tastes largely govern success at any given time, without loosing some of their initial enthusiasm. I explain as much to her, and she practically laughs me off. The question remains: Mary, why are you still in love with fashion?
“Well, because it’s such fun! I do feel extremely fortunate. I always wanted to design. Oh yes. Always. I was absolutely obsessed with it. I used to inherit the clothes of my cousins, and I would cut them and change them around to make my own clothes. I bought patterns and I’d chop out what I didn’t want. I began sending my own patterns to the company that made them, and they offered me a job! They hired me as soon as I left school, so I must have been seventeen or eighteen.”
I suggest that what’s made her so successful is that a sense of playfulness and fun is contagious, and her clothes must have acted as conduits for that energy. “I hope so. Yes. That is the point of clothes, isn’t it? When someone’s wearing something and they’re having fun, it gives pleasure all around. The best fashion always has an element of playfulness. I’m intuitive, and I just go for it. Yes. On that there’s no doubt. The daisy?”
She’s referring to the iconic floral logo that adorns all of her products. It has become iconic — a symbol of the sixties.
“It was obvious! It was me! Everything else was too complicated. There was never a question, for me. You just have to go with it, and enjoy it. Everything comes naturally. Just enjoy it.”
“It’s like the story of how my makeup line came about,” she continues, incorrigibly chatty and equally upbeat, but never in a boring way. “I had always done my makeup differently. As an arts student, I used my watercolor paint blocks to do my makeup. Why not? It was the obvious thing to do! It had everything I wanted, so that’s how I did my makeup. It was wonderful! But, to sell the idea, there was the need to make it more sophisticated. So, I began to work with makeup, so that I could create products that had all the colors and properties that I wanted, and…”
We’re cut off, and when she answers the phone next, I have one last question for her. Having read, on her Wikipedia bio, a quote by influential sixties fashion journalist Ernestine Carter, which compares her fortune and intuition to that of Chanel and Dior, I wonder how she feels about the comparison.
My hairdressers would be called Dana Do and we'd Dana Do this hair cut only. L.O.V.E. a shoulder-skimming shingle, obviously. Where is Gillian Anderson's alter ego right now? Petition to have her on-screen at all hours of the day! Freestyle rap: WHERE'S DANA? THAT STUNNER GONNA GUN YA! FBI AGENT BE MIA, WISH DU-CHOV-N-Y WAS GAY. WHERE'S SCULLY? IS SHE COMIN' FOR YA? FROM CALIFORNIA? COULD SHE BE IN THE CIA? STUCK IN TRAFFIC ON THE FREEWAY? WHERE'S SCULLY? IS SHE COMIN' FOR YA? PEACE! (Sound of mic hitting floor).
I could barely keep my eyes open on Saturday morning — not because LN-CC's newly refurbished store on Shacklewell Lane in London isn't somethin' else visually, but because I was fighting what would shortly afterwards develop into a full-blown flu. Before days of feverish delirium, I met Damir Doma at the brunch LN-CC had put on to celebrate their IRL relaunch, and after a few cups of ambition we started talking about everything from London to Tokyo.
Zac Bayly: What's so cool about LN-CC?
Damir Doma: It's hard to say from a distance. We've done this parallel thing — when I did women's, they started doing women's. We've grown together. There's also a strong link between us personally. On a more personal level, I think that John Skelton is one of the greatest buyers on this planet. He's one of the very rare ones who have their own vision, who enter a show room and just pick their own stuff without being distracted by what people around them say. He has his own style, and you can see that in the store. You can see a very distinct aesthetic in the store; he has a very singular vision. That's the great thing about LN-CC: they're one of the rare ones that really go with the time. They're really a part of this community. Everyone wants to do online retail because they think that's where the money is, but LN-CC have built a community around their store, which is unique. It's not fake. It's real. And this store is just amazing. They didn't just throw millions of euros into the space, they've really developed it slowly, and…
Sorry… I've never used an iPhone before! Is this recording?
I don't know! [We laugh]
This is terrifying! I've had that happen before, where I've gotten to the end of an interview and it hasn't been recording. It was like, "Oh my god… Can I ask you all the same questions again?"
[Laughs] And you can never get the same good answers again, can you?! I had the same thing happen once — we didn't realise my microphone wasn't working until right at the end of an interview.
Oh no! So, do you spend much time in London?
Not as much as I'd like to. I'm travelling a lot. Mostly I come, like today, for the day.
You're only here for the day?
Yes! When I have the opportunity, I like to stay in Paris.
Where's your favourite place to go? It can't be London, because it's miserable here.
[Laughs] I love the people in London! But I love Japan.
What do you love about Japan?
I love the people. I love the feeling they give me, and I love the sensibility, the calmness. But last time I was there… Well, Japan's a bit difficult right now, with what they've been through last year. You can really feel it in the city.
Yeah. [A group of noisy people interrupt our conversation and we wait for them to leave the room] Erm… What's your favourite thing you've ever designed?
[Laughs] It's really hard to say! I'm always living in the future. That's the crazy thing about our work. I'm living two seasons ahead. I always love what I'm going to do next.
Are you a very organized person?
I would say so. If you do almost ten collections a year, you have to be. You are forced to be organized. I went to German school and I grew up in Germany, so that's the most German part of me. I have very structured thinking; I'm very logical.
I think you're one of three designers I've ever spoken to who've said they are organized with their approach to —
Well, I think if you came to my office, you would not share my opinion! [Laughs] But that's just because there's a lot going on — things going in, out, in, out, every day. There's just this kind of natural chaos. But chaos freaks me out. When I work, I need to fix the chaos before I get to work. I need structure. I need to have a clear mind.
How do you clear your mind?
I try to get into meditation mode. Sometimes running… I've tried meditation, but for me it's not the right thing. If I'm running, after twenty or thirty minutes, I get into the mode of meditation. You forget everything. Everyone has to find their own type of meditation to get into that moment of clarity.
Image: Damir Doma FW13 PFW backstage by Sonny Vandevelde
Image from the ALMA observatory, which goes ONLINE this week!
Jessica Lange with King Kong doll
My floral tribute to the pathogens that have plagued me this winter (incomplete)