We want your Quant
If you’ve got some Mary Quant outfits lurking in your wardrobe, the V&A would like to hear from you
Among Heather Tilbury’s mementoes of a long and fascinating career in public relations is a photo she’d like to share with the rest of Suffolk. It’s of Heather herself, a young, professional woman, fashionably dressed in a boldly patterned jacket and maxi-skirt, taken in 1973 in South Molton Street, just off London’s Bond Street, outside the Ginger Group showroom. Readers of a certain vintage might recognise that name as the ready-to-wear label of designer Mary Quant, arguably the UK’s greatest fashion icon of the 20th century and, in Heather’s early career, her boss. The outfit, made in Liberty Varuna fabric, was designed by Mary Quant. Heather hasn’t seen it for years, not since she gave it to a jumble sale for the village of Brockley in west Suffolk, several years ago. Now, she’d rather like to track it down.
“I could kick myself,” she says. “I really should have realised its significance and held on to it. But perhaps someone out there still has it and could let me know.” The reason Heather’s so anxious get her hands on it, and many other outfits she gave away, is because for the past four years she’s been working with the V&A Museum on a major exhibition celebrating the life and work of Mary Quant. It opens in 2019 and will run into 2020, when Dame Mary Quant will celebrate her 90th birthday. It will chart her rise to success and share stories from people who loved the Mary Quant brand and wore her distinctive designs in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The museum is enlisting the public to help track down Mary Quant garments and gather stories. Heather believes there could be quite a few items lurking in wardrobes, lofts and attics in Suffolk.
“In the early days Mary Quant was mostly sold in London,” she explains, “but a few selected boutiques outside the capital were allowed to sell garments and one of them was in Southwold. We haven’t been able to find out who that was, so far – perhaps we will – but it leads us to think that quite a few Mary Quant items must have found their way to jumble
sales, charity shops and the like in Suffolk – including my outfit. Is it still out there somewhere?”
Heather, who has lived a few miles from Bury St Edmunds since the 1970s, handled Mary Quant’s public relations, both directly and indirectly, for a total of 13 years, in the formative 1960s, and again in the 1970s when she became a board member, together with five others including Mary, her husband, Alexander Plunket Greene, and Archie McNair, the chairman.
“The only reason I left towards the end of the 1970s was to start my own PR and marketing business, something I’d always wanted to do. My first client was Viyella, which subsequently had the licence to make Mary Quant garments. If I hadn’t had that period working so closely with Mary Quant
I don’t think my business would have taken off as it did. I’m hugely grateful to Mary, Archie and Alex.”
The idea for the V&A exhibition came to Heather while she was recuperating from an accident while walking her dog on Hardwick Heath, outside Bury St Edmunds. “A dog cannoned into me and broke my leg in three places.” While she was recovering
‘Mary Quant’s designs defined the look of the era’
in hospital, a friend brought her a 2012 autobiography of Mary Quant. Heather wasn’t impressed by some of its less than accurate accounts of the designer’s life. It was time, she believed, that the nation recognised Mary Quant’s gigantic achievements, and her contribution to Britain’s cultural revolution since the 1950s, with a major exhibition and a book. Luckily, Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, agreed.
Mary Quant’s far-reaching influence on British life cannot be overestimated. She is synonymous with the enormous social change that upended Britain in the decades following World War II. Along with music and art, fashion became an important part of the way that young people found their identity. Before Mary Quant, young people dressed like their parents. But she gave them a style and direction all their own. Minimal, androgynous, graphic, it freed Britain’s youth from the formal, tailored, debutante clothes of previous generations. Her designs defined the look of the era. But as the exhibition will show, Mary Quant was more than a very talented designer with a knack for tapping into the zeitgeist. She was an entrepreneur, with an ability to attract the right people – Archie McNair, whose King’s Road coffee bar, The Fantasie, was the centre of Chelsea life, and Alexander Plunket Greene, who she met at Goldsmith’s College of Art and later married. “They made a very strong, close-knit team,” says Heather. “It’s the reason they endured. All three brought their own skills to grow the business.” And it did grow. The Bazaar shops, tights, cosmetics, shoes and boots, Butterick paper patterns, homewares, stationery, and, of course, the Ginger Group – everyone could have a bit of Mary Quant. So, turn out your wardbrobes, rummage in your attics. If there’s something Mary Quant in there, particularly early Mary Quant dresses, Heather and the V&A want to know about it. Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.orgN
ABOVE: Mary QuantRIGHT: Satin mini-dress and shorts by Mary Quant. The V&A is looking for rare, one-off designs sold between 1955 and 1960, early experimental garments in PVC, styles from 1964 and 1965 with Peter Pan collars, knitwear, swimwear and accessories, garmets made in Mary Quant Butterick patterns.
ABOVE:Mary Quant (foreground), with models showing her new shoe creations.