Quant, Mary (1934—)

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Quant, Mary (1934—)

English entrepreneur whose perception, business acumen, and interpretation of fashion and design repeatedly revolutionized conventional ideas of style, promotion, and manufacture in several branches of the industrial arts. Born Mary Quant on February 11,1934, in Black-heath, London; daughter of Jack and Mildred Quant; educated at 13 schools and Goldsmiths College of Art; married Alexander Plunkett Greene, in 1957 (divorced 1990); children: son Orlando (b. 1970).

Awards include:

FSIA (1967); Maison Blanche Rex Award-USA (1964); Sunday Times International Award (1964); Piavola D'Oro Award (Italy, 1966); Annual Design Medal, Institute of Industrial Artists and Designers (1966); FRSA (1996).

As a child during WWII, was evacuated to southeast England and later to Wales; left school at 16 on winning a scholarship to art school (1950) where she met Alexander Plunkett Greene who would be her life and business partner for over 40 years; ran Bazaar (with Greene and third business partner Archie Mc-Nair) in King's Road, Chelsea (1955–68); began to design clothes for Bazaar (1956); opened and oversaw a second branch of Bazaar in Knightsbridge (1957–69); signed with J.C. Penney (U.S.) to design fashions for their stores throughout America (1962–71); started the Ginger Group (wholesale company), was elected "Woman of the Year" (UK), and pioneered the use of PVC (oilskin) in fashion rainwear (1963); invited to create exclusive designs for Puritan Fashion (large U.S. ready-to-wear manufacturers) and also for Butterick paper-patterns for home dressmakers (1964); launched Quant hosiery and lingerie line (1965); launched "Mary Quant Cosmetics," published Quant on Quant (autobiography), and received OBE (Order of the British Empire) in the queen's honors list (1966); elected Royal Designer for Industry by the Royal Society of Arts (1969); her coordinated range of household furnishings and domestic textile designs promoted by ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries, 1970); was a member of the Design Council (1971–74) and a member of British-American Liaison Committee (1973); exhibition "Mary Quant's London" held at London Museum (1973–74); joined the advisory council of the V&A (Victoria and Albert) Museum (1976–78); opened first Tokyo "Mary Quant Color Shop" (1983); published two books, Color by Quant (1984) and Quant on Makeup (1986); elected to the Hall of Fame British Fashion Council (1990); became co-chair of the Mary Quant Group of Companies (1991); created an honorary fellow of Goldsmiths College of Art (1993); opened Mary Quant Color Shops in Chelsea and Knightsbridge (both London), as well as Paris (1994–97).

Selected publications:

Quant by Quant (Cassell, 1966); Color by Quant (Octopus Books, 1984); Quant on Makeup (Century Hutchinson, 1986); Classic Makeup and Beauty Book (Dorling Kindersley, 1996).

The airplane was about 20 minutes from Dulles Airport in 1962 when the chief steward approached the young English couple in first class who were clearly relishing their complimentary caviar and champagne. "Miss Quant," he said. "We have received a radio message from Washington. They have asked that you should be the first to step off the plane so that the television cameras and photographers can get pictures." Immediately, the petite redhead almost collapsed with embarrassment. She flew into the nearest lavatory, locked the door, and, heart pounding, changed out of her "dowdy old gear" and began to brush her hair. "Return to your seats," came the voice over the intercom. But Mary Quant, hand-picked by the major chainstore retailer in the U.S. as the brightest and most outrageously daring star in a galaxy of young British designers, a fashion innovator and co-director of the most successful boutique in London, was paralyzed with fear. She remained locked in the lavatory until the plane and the airport were nearly deserted. Then she emerged at last, creeping down the steps, just visible beneath an armful of cardboard boxes containing her precious new Spring Collection.

Fortunately her crisis of confidence proved only temporary, for it was this trip, as the protégé of the J.C. Penney Corporation, that heralded Quant's career as a major 20th-century designer of clothes for the international ready-to-wear market. Her flair for capturing the spirit and imagination of the youth of postwar England had led the way into a new era of fashion. Soon, she was to achieve lasting fame as the fashion voice of what became known as the "Swinging '60s."

Seven years earlier, with the opening of Bazaar, an enticing boutique in the King's Road, Mary Quant had started a small revolution in London that reverberated worldwide. Until then, young girls had grown up with the idea that fashion was for wealthy "older women," and they looked forward to being initiated into the smart black-dress-and-pearls sophistication of their mothers. Quant stood that convention on its head. She pioneered the idea of clothes as fun, as an expression of individuality, and she believed passionately in promoting and celebrating the self-confidence the new teenagers brought to the market place.

Quant's interest in creating her own clothes began very early in her childhood: she was about six and in bed recovering from the measles when she decided that her heirloom bedspread would "make a super dress" and began to cut it up. The result is not recorded, but presumably her parents' response did not altogether discourage her, for she was allowed to use the old family sewing machine; by the time she started secondary school, she had invented her own school uniform. During World War II, the elder Quants, who were both dedicated and industrious schoolteachers, were relocated several times, with the result that Mary and her brother Tony attended nearly a dozen schools. One she particularly disliked, a boarding-school in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, insisted on a strict dress code, resulting in a family outlay for two or three blue-and-white gingham dresses. Not long after, moreover, her father was transferred to West Wales, and the family was allowed to join him. Quant had not yet grown out of the uniforms, so she carefully unstitched the dresses and remade them. Suddenly her wardrobe was full of short, flared skirts which she wore with long white socks, telling everyone that this had been the uniform at her previous school.

I love vulgarity. Good taste is death. Vulgarity is life.

—Mary Quant

Quant loved her stay in Wales. Since the family home was close to the beach, she and Tony spent endless summer days enjoying the sand and sea. They soon realized, however, that they could make a little money. Many of the wealthy visitors, proud owners of small boats, were often novice sailors with little experience of the hazardous Pembrokeshire coastline. With the help of local seafarers who taught them the rudiments of sailing, and their Welsh schoolfriends who knew every cove and rock for miles around, the two children set up "a sort of advisory service." After devising a scale of charges, the Quant children would approach newcomers with offers of navigational tips, sailing lessons, and, as profits increased, coastal tours in their own diesel-engined boat. They expanded still further, launching an agency to hose down the boats at the end of the season and send them by train to their owners' homes. It was an enterprising and profitable introduction to the world of big business.

By the time the Quants moved back to Black-heath, a suburb of London, however, Mary's checkered schooling had begun to undermine her confidence. Her parents had high expectations for both their children and encouraged them to excel. Unfortunately, each school Quant attended seemed to have a different assessment of her abilities. In one, she would be top of the class in math; in another, she would be placed near the bottom. One teacher told her that, though she had no talent for art at all, she had a natural rapport with younger children. It seemed that she was destined for the teaching profession.

That is, until she came under the influence of Auntie Frances. Auntie Frances was her father's sister and came to live with the family as Quant entered her teens. Aunt and niece shared a bedroom, and since Frances seemed to need little sleep they talked into the night. A spiritualist and a professional medium, Frances was anxious to pass on to Mary the strange powers she felt herself to possess. Sometimes Quant would wake to find her aunt circling her bed mumbling and waving a stick in the air. Mary was not at all frightened; instead, she was fascinated, intrigued, and felt a little wary of the possibility that she had inherited some unusual and inexplicable psychic ability. It was her aunt who predicted that Mary would design clothes, influence people, travel the world, and end up colossally rich. She warned Mary of her weaknesses and advised her on how to overcome them. She foretold her partnership with Alexander Plunkett Greene, saying again and again that they would "have to grow up together."

Postwar London was a bleak place. Extensive bombing had shattered communities, destroying buildings and families indiscriminately. Despite her trying ways, Auntie Frances' eccentricity must have added much-needed color to Quant's world; it also gave her a focus for her future. At 16, she won a scholarship to Goldsmiths College of Art in southeast London. Her parents were horrified by her desire to enter the fashion world—to them it seemed far too unstable—and agreed to let her accept her place only on condition that she took the Art Teacher's Diploma Course.

Quant lived at home during her first years at college, but after she met Alexander Plunkett Greene the strains on family relationships increased dramatically. Although, like her, Greene was only 16, he seemed entirely independent. He lived alone in his mother's apartment in Chelsea, gave wild parties and, though also enrolled at the college, was extremely casual about attending classes, seldom getting out of bed before four. He epitomized everything Quant had been taught to avoid, and she found him exotic, worldly, and magnetically attractive. They soon became inseparable. Quant's parents watched appalled as they saw their fine example of "hard work for solid rewards" being undermined by someone who seemed to live a life almost entirely of pleasure. They fought back at every turn. But Mary was enchanted.

She failed to achieve her Art Teacher's Diploma—which caused even more friction at

home—but she finally landed a job with Erik, a well-known milliner, which excited her enormously. She began to work a 50-hour week for which she was paid just enough to cover her train fares. Though there was nothing left over for clothes or entertainment, that was not a problem: Quant regularly remade her old clothes, constantly experimenting to give them a "new look," and she and Greene were inventive when it came to having fun. Alexander was keen on jazz and performed with a group of friends, giving spontaneous concerts and dance parties in the street. They also enjoyed playing practical jokes on an unsuspecting public. They once staged a kidnapping in central London and were delighted when they earned disapproving looks and sighs of "Oh God, this modern youth." With that, they started to call themselves "Modern Youth," and their games and attire became more and more elaborate and extraordinary. However, behind the hilarity and the apparent recklessness were two surprisingly aware, ambitious and creative imaginations almost waiting for fate to take them in hand.

Fate arrived in the guise of Archie McNair, an ex-solicitor turned photographer who had a studio and coffee bar in the King's Road, Chelsea, where Greene lived. Quant attributes a great deal of the success of their early ventures to McNair's flair for property and his astute knowledge of business and the law. The renaissance of British style in the mid-1950s was as much a matter of geography and proximity as anything else. In Chelsea, generally known as the "arty" section of London, there was "some-thing in the air"—a collective feeling of wanting to "break the rules," to shock, to overturn the old values laid down by a previous generation who had sacrificed their youth and vitality to the building of a society which had been decimated by war and privation. It was an intoxicating mixture of passion, rebellion, and revelry.

As the friendship between Quant, Greene, and McNair grew, they began to talk about their dreams of the future. Recognizing Mary's eye for design and sizzling sense of style, the young men decided to invest in her and made plans to set up a shop they would call Bazaar, selling the most audacious clothes, hats, and accessories in London. This boutique would be an experience in itself, offbeat and attractive to people who wanted to say something exciting about themselves in what they chose to wear. Gradually, their dream became a thrilling possibility.

At 21, Greene, who had a wealth of rather feckless but well-connected relations, inherited £5,000, and McNair was prepared to match it. Very soon they found the perfect location—the basement and ground floor of a house in the King's Road. They originally had hoped to have a jazz club in the basement, but the Chelsea residents vetoed that idea so they decided to install a restaurant instead. They borrowed more money to overhaul both floors and to pay Mary £5 a week to act as their "buyer." She quit her job, left home, and moved into a tiny apartment. It was a relief to find that brother Tony remained staunchly loyal to the project despite the continuing disapproval of their parents. She felt some trepidation as she realized the immense burden of responsibility she carried, but from the moment Bazaar finally threw open its doors it was an almost overwhelming success. Within ten days, the triumvirate had sold every original piece of merchandise in the store—in spite of the fact that only one fashion editor had given them a feature: Harper's Bazaar had pictured a wacky pair of "house pajamas" which Quant had made as her only contribution to the premiere collection. When the pajamas were returned from the photo shoot, they were immediately snapped up by an entrepreneur who told her he planned to mass produce them for the American market. Quant was furious that he could do that—just buy the garment and copy it—but at the same time she was encouraged to concentrate seriously on her own talent for design.

Fueled by the necessity of keeping the shelves and rails stocked and realizing that nobody was producing the kind of clothes she wanted to sell, she began to sew day and night, adapting patterns from Butterick, attending evening classes to learn cutting, and buying fabric from Harrods because she knew nothing about wholesale. The first months at Bazaar were a purely spontaneous response to demand and, since the talented threesome had no previous experience in the "rag-trade," quite amateur. All profits were plunged straight back into production. Quant took on extra help, bought more sewing machines (all installed in the apartment), and was frequently frustrated to find that her cats had eaten the paper patterns. Only later did she learn that the tissue used to make them was manufactured from a by-product of fish bones.

As they began to be more organized, Quant was invited to join the team of British designers for a fashion show in St. Moritz. She was amazed and a little intimidated to think her "crazy" clothes would be sharing a platform with the "haute couture." She arrived in Switzerland, at the height of the ski season, with her "collection" packed in cardboard boxes, fighting a bad case of the flu. The packed hotel was grand and opulent, which, though a perfect foil for conventional ballgowns, was hardly the sort of background that would show off Bazaar clothes to advantage. Quant's creative flair was challenged. But while talking to the models, she discovered they were wild about her ingenious ideas. She urged them to be inventive on the catwalk, and they responded at once when, at the first glimpse of a white, lacy pantsuit, the music changed from sedate classics to upbeat jazz. The models ran, leapt, and danced down the huge staircase in quick succession, striking goofy, angular poses, clowning and laughing throughout. It was fast, unpredictable, and fun. The audience gaped, gasped, then applauded, and the show was a sensation. Mary Quant had electrified Europe.

Subsequently, the "Mary Quant Group" vigorously expanded, and Quant and Greene married in 1957. Helped by a continuous round of fashion shows, press launches, and lunches, they were constantly introducing innovative promotional ideas (Bazaar's window displays frequently caused traffic jams) and stealing headlines as hemlines rose and waistlines dropped—or disappeared. But Quant still longed to reach a wider market and that opportunity came with the J.C. Penney contract in 1962. Shrewdly, she grabbed it. "It is pointless in fashion to create a couture design and imagine it can be adequately produced cheaply and in quantity," she said. "Fashion must be created from the start for mass production with a full knowledge of mass-production methods." Quant greatly admired the American skill in adapting designs and proportioning patterns to accommodate different body shapes without "diluting or slaughtering the original style," and longed to master it. For nearly the following decade, she produced four collections a year for Penney's, aimed primarily at American teenagers.

In 1963, putting her new expertise to use back in London, she launched her company, "The Ginger Group," to manufacture her dresses and sportswear for worldwide distribution, and the following year she was approached by Carl Rosen, president of Puritan Fashions, the fourth largest manufacturing group in America.

Rosen was well aware that a country that had already fostered the talents of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Vidal Sassoon was bursting with a vibrant freshness that was also revitalizing the world of fashion. He was determined to bring the complete "London Look" to America, coining the name "Youthquake" for the whole venture. Plans forged ahead, though nothing was finalized. Eventually, 60 new Quant designs for Puritan which were supposed to go into mass production for the new season were lined up and waiting to be flown to New York City, but details of the business arrangement still had to be agreed on and contracts signed. Frustration mounted, and the deadline grew dangerously close. Trans-Atlantic telephone calls went on through the night. Quant and Greene had missed their plane when a phone call from Rosen finally reassured them, but time had run out. The "red tape" involved in exporting designs via the conventional channels was complex and would take far too long. They would simply have to carry the clothes with them. In the past, they would have thrown everything into crates and cardboard boxes, but their new "high-profile" image made them self-conscious. There was nothing for it but to purchase some luggage. A few hours later, they landed in New York with nine uncharacteristically smart-looking crocodile-leather suitcases full of (as they claimed) "personal effects." Luckily, Quant spotted a sympathetic customs official who seemed ready to accept that an eccentric, fur-bedecked English woman required a wardrobe of 60 frocks and accessories to see her through a four-day visit. The entire collection was shown to the 40 or so heads of the Puritan empire; orders were placed and the deal went ahead.

Then someone came up with the idea for a coast-to-coast whistle-stop fashion tour—a roadshow—the first of its kind. Quant's promotional style was essentially the same as the format she had devised in St. Moritz—slick, wild, and wacky—and she always preferred live-band music. The youth of America responded joyously, often to the great surprise of store managers in sleepy suburban towns who had no idea of what to expect. But as hordes of teenagers besieged their fashion departments with dollars in hand, the managers began to realize the potential. By the time the show reached Kansas City, Quant and her entourage were treated like movie stars. Thousands of young people came to the shows bringing autograph books with them.

Quant and Greene boarded the plane home exhausted but thrilled. Inevitably, they began to wonder how their workrooms back in London had managed without them for so long. They were "almost disappointed" to find that their management skills had become so professional that everything was running smoothly; someone even asked Quant if she had "enjoyed her holiday?"

From then on, the business mushroomed to staggering proportions. Quant and Greene became world travelers, mobbed and feted everywhere they went, so well known to customs officials that they scarcely needed passports. Their output was tremendous. Quant was setting trends not only in dresses, sportswear and separates, but in swimwear, headwear, and underwear. A leading British fashion writer, Ernestine Carter , calculated that by 1965, Mary Quant was producing 528 designs a year (an average of 1.66 designs a day—including Sundays).

Awards and honors rained upon her. She published an autobiography (aged 32) and in 1973–74 the London Museum (then at Kensington Palace) paid homage to the enormous influence she had had on the capital city by mounting an exhibition entitled "Mary Quant's London," displaying over 50 garments and illustrating the extraordinary versatility and audacity of her design ideas. As Carter claimed in her introduction to the show's catalogue, Quant had "blasted a hole in the wall of tradition, through which other young talents have poured."

Gradually, Quant's growing disenchantment with "processed" materials led her to return more and more to natural fibers like calicos, linens, and cottons. Subsequently, she began to turn her hand to textile design, and her bedwear, curtains, wallpaper, and carpets were launched and marketed throughout the world during the 1970s and 1980s.

The dawn of the 1990s saw a renovation of her home furnishings with a fine art division called Fine Decor and a continuing expansion of one of her biggest ventures: "Mary Quant Cosmetics." This was an enterprise that, since its inception in the 1960s, had held the potential of reaching an almost unlimited range of customers in every corner of the globe. It has proved the most enduring of her business interests. In 1996, Quant published her comprehensive guide, the Classic Makeup and Beauty Book, which gives practical advice to the beginner and the more experienced on how to analyze face and skin type; it also addresses the latest skin care, body care, and makeup techniques with humor and style. The book follows through with Quant's fundamental philosophy that all fashion should be creative, fun, and empowering. She is against using makeup as a form of camouflage, believing it to be a confidence-building tool, a way of bringing out the best in the face and above all a means of self-expression.

The first Mary Quant Color Shop, with cosmetics, fashion, and fashion accessories displayed in the same store, opened in Tokyo in 1983; there were soon over 200 outlets in Japan, one in Paris, and two in London. Forty years after the opening of Bazaar, Mary Quant, the iconoclastic designer who "opened windows that had been sealed tight for far too long" was enjoying her continued triumph in England's capital city.


Carter, Ernestine. "Mary Quant's London," in introduction to Catalogue to London Museum exhibition, 1973.

Quant, Mary. Quant on Quant (autobiography). London: Cassell, 1966.


Some items of clothing are on permanent display in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and the Museum of Costume, Bath, England.

Bonnie Hurren , freelance actor and director, Bristol, England