Heroes of British business: Mary Quant

One of the greats of London's fashion industry, Quant has a lot to teach us about self-branding.

by Paul Simpson
Last Updated: 12 Jun 2019

Other designers deserve some of the credit for creating this icon of the Swinging Sixties but Quant popularised it. She said the miniskirt was effectively crowdsourced: "The girls on the King’s Road invented it. I was making easy, youthful, simple clothes you could move in. They would say, ‘Shorter and shorter.’" She later invented hotpants.

Why is she important?

Her clothes smashed through class barriers to appeal, in her words, to duchesses and typists. To those who disapproved, Quant replied: "Good taste is death, vulgarity is life." As companies weren’t making the kind of clothes she wanted to sell, she started manufacturing her own. She later diversified into affordable fashion, clothes for US retailer JC Penney, cosmetics and toys.

Why was she so successful?

In the words of fashion journalist Ernestine Carter: "It is given to a fortunate few to be born in the right place at the right time with the right talent. In recent times in fashion, there have been three: Chanel, Dior and Quant." Born in Blackheath to Welsh parents, she cut up a bedspread when she was seven because she thought it would make a nice dress. Opening her first shop, Bazaar, in Chelsea in 1955, she realised that London’s young fashionistas didn’t want to wear the same clothes as their mothers and created designs that anticipated the generation gap. She worked hard, too – learning about cutting and printed patterns at evening classes and sewing new clothes overnight in her shop. Her greatest strength was that she became her own brand.

How did she do that?

She looked and dressed like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, her most famous models. Customers included the Beatles and David Bailey. Her bob haircut, perfected by Vidal Sassoon, was instantly recognisable and she had an eye for publicity, once revealing that she had dyed her pubic hair green and cut it into a heart shape.

So when the Sixties stopped swinging did the cash tills stop ringing?

Not really but in Britain in the 1970s, she no longer seemed part of the zeitgeist. Her cosmetics were phenomonally popular in Japan – she sold the business to a Far Eastern consortium in 2000. She became a Dame in 2015. 

Influenced by

Designers Claire McCardell, Pierre Cardin, Coco Chanel and André Courrèges, but also Pop Art, the Mods, and the young women she met at her King’s Road shop.

Influence on

The fashion industry. She broke the dominance of the French couture houses, creating space for other British designers – notably Vivienne Westwood – to flourish.

Image credit: Francesca Romana Correale/Flickr


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