The start of the fashion revolution was marked by a thumping on the plateglass window of a Chelsea boutique in the late 1950s. London businessmen in bowler hats, shocked by the sight of tiny miniskirts, would bang on the front of Mary Quant’s Bazaar, shouting “Immoral!” and “Disgusting!”. At the same time, the Chelsea girls the skirts were made for, gasping for the latest Quant design, responded to the minuscule hemlines by shouting, “Shorter, shorter!”
“It was the girls on the King’s Road who invented the mini,” Mary said in her first biography, Quant by Quant (1966). Their calls for shorter skirts were really a cry for freedom, she explained, and as her skirts shed inches, Mary ushered in an era of liberation.
“I just always wanted to do this,” said the softly-spoken designer in a 1985 interview. “I didn’t like clothes the way they were. They weren’t me. I was, from a very young age, trying to make my own clothes which were very strongly the look that I still love.”
Raised in London’s Blackheath by schoolteacher parents, young Mary’s only exposure to fashion was the dresses she made herself from old bedsheets.
Mary’s straitlaced mum and dad didn’t like the idea her going to fashion school but acquiesced to art school, so Mary went on to study illustration at Goldsmiths’ College. There she met the aristocratic Alexander Plunkett Greene, whom she described as “a great wit and a dish” and who would become her husband and business partner.
In 1955, Alexander and Archie McNair purchased Markham House on the King’s Road in Chelsea. They installed a restaurant in the basement and turned the ground floor into Bazaar.
“Nobody told us we couldn’t do it, and we did it,” Mary said. They had no idea what was needed to make a business work, and they didn’t have any working capital. However, a pair of “mad” pyjamas she had designed for the opening attracted the attention of Harper’s Magazine, and success was instantaneous.
“We opened the door and there was a queue,” she said. “People were four-deep outside. We were almost overwhelmed by the success of the thing.”
Within two years, Mary, Alexander and McNair had opened a second boutique. On her nights off, Mary would attend fashionable London nightspots with her husband on her arm, on the lookout for new trends.
In the 1960s when the world became obsessed with space-aged materials, Mary turned to an industrial fabric, PVC, and prompted the next big craze. Her plastic “wet look” would earn Mary her first Vogue cover and the title of creator of one of the 1960s’ most distinctive looks.
The Swinging Sixties were alive within her marriage as much as anywhere else, with Mary confessing in her eponymous 2019 autobiography, “Alexander was a hell of a womaniser, like his father, and that makes life bumpy.”
In her eyes, he was “a 6’2″ prototype for Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney rolled into one,” and despite his cheating he remained the love of her life until his death in 1990. “I’ll never get over it,” Mary lamented in her autobiography.
Though Mary stepped down as director of her company over 20 years ago, her unique aesthetic endures. The Mary Quant look is, in her own words, “aggressive and sexy”. It flirted with androgyny and played with a vivid palette.
She designed for real people, but the general public and shining celebrities alike couldn’t get enough of the Queen of Mod.