Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Sixties Boutiques #3 - Mary Quant's Bazaar

(This article was originally published on Atom Retro's Mod Clothing Chronicles).

A life leading up to Bazaar:

Born in Blackheath, London to Welsh Parents, Mary Quant finished her studies at Blackheath High School and went on to study illustration at Goldsmith's College. Upon finishing her course, Quant took up a post as an apprentice couture milliner, whilst also taking a pattern cutting class in her spare time. It was her experiences during her apprenticeship that led Quant to realise that fashion shouldn't just be reserved for the upper classes, but should also be accessible to a younger, less privileged clientele.

Quant surmised that at the time fashion simply wasn't tailored to the youth market. Inspired by memories from childhood, images of Chelsea Beatniks and flamboyant dance outfits, Quant was to assume the mantle as a pioneer of youth fashion. Teaming up with her husband and business partner, Alexander Plunkett-Greene whom she had had met whilst studying at Goldsmith's College and Archie McNair to take on accountancy, legal and commercial aspects, Quant plotted a fashion revolution that would begin at 138A Kings Road, London.

The beginning of a Bazaar World:

1955 was a busy year... No sooner had she started her apprenticeship in millinery, Quant was preparing to embark on her own fashion adventure. Her very own clothing boutique along the Kings Road. A £5,000 cash injection, courtesy of Greene (acquired from an inheritance) had allowed them to rent Markham House. The first floor of which would be allocated to the iconic Bazaar boutique. Also at this time a chic five petal daisy motif, a seed that would grow into an icon of the Swinging Sixties era and a symbol of Mod Culture - a stylistic hallmark to usher in the embryonic world of Bazaar was born. Quant carefully selected lines of clothing to sell in Bazaar and straight from the word go sales flourished. With shelves left empty on a daily basis, Bazaar's problem it would seem was not buying enough stock... or was it that the margin they were making was less than adequate, at least compared to other local retailers....

"It was no wonder we did such a roaring trade the moment we opened. The shop was constantly stripped bare-sometimes we hardly had enough to dress the window because we never bought enough of anything."

- Mary Quant

Mary Quant, dismayed at the lack of inspiring garments and wares with which to furnish her shop, decided to literally take matters into her own hands. The clothing landscape of London was set to change forever.

Pattie Boyd models a Quant dress with Tom Courtney
The Mod era and the Chelsea Look!

With a small manufacturing set up, a factory out of her own home, Quant would sew dresses through the night to sell in Bazaar the next day. Hiring a dress maker to help out during the day, Quant's aim was to create the right clothes for the fashion conscious young female. From here the innovative and conceptual Mod designs would begin to come into fruition. Quant would later credit Mods as a major source of inspiration.

Her designs were often simple, tunic and shift dresses, easy to wear and with special attention paid to colours, patterns and fabrics. Acknowledged as being the first to use PVC in clothing, recognised for her use of striking colours in pantyhose as an accessory to both dresses and knitwear, Quant's vivacious and sexy designs were soon the talk of the town. Quants work with *Butterick's, a prominent name in sewing patterns would see some of her designs sell over 70,000 units. Her clothes combined simple shapes and bold colours, the very embodiment of young women's fashion.

Influenced by pop culture, Quant's designs were the epitome of swinging Sixties London. From her very own Vidal Sassoon Bob hair cut, Quant was beginning to position herself as Mod Girl and her wares as Mod essentials. Cleverly co-ordinated Mod Clothing such as pinafores, laced with colour and layered over simple tops, colourful accompaniments to match knitwear and accessories such as PVC collars to accentuate style and of course the most iconic of Quant Mod Clothing innovations, the Mini Skirt! ... a trademark of the Chelsea Look and the Swinging Sixties Mod era.

Mary Quant's Bazaar on the King's Road. Photo by Bob Thomas.

The Mini went Massive!

A line up of the Mary Quant Mini Skirt
Mary Quant was uniquely positioned at the dawn of a new fashion era, a renaissance in modern clothing that would afford Quant her own chapter in fashion history and folklore. Since the late 1950's skirts were gradually getting shorter, elements of practicality, style and demand of the young female consumer to dress differently. Quant would take these traits and add an element of shock into the mix. Something the discerning Chelsea Girl gladly identified with. Sharing credits with the girls on Kings Road and two other contemporaries, André Courrèges and John Bates who also experimented with shorter length skirts (though the three did not work together), Quant would develop a cool concept in ladies fashion... eventually going on to coin the phrase Mini Skirt, named after her favourite mode of transport. Quant later suggested the girls who shopped in Bazaar encouraged her to boldly experiment with the length of the skirts. The discerning fashion connoisseurs of the Chelsea Set constantly wanted them shorter and shorter and to accessorise the look with colourful and patterned tights. Quant's radical designs were garnering more and more attention and the Mod Look was about to turn into a Worldwide phenomenon.

Mary Quant plastic raincoat modelled by Jackie Bowyer in 1963

Plastic Raincoats, Revealing skirts and Pretty Pinafores:

The creation of a colourful world through colourful garments had made Quant into a household name, a celebrity in her own right. A pioneer of Lades Mod Clothing and fashion, drawing on Vintage and Retro culture and adding contemporary twists to designs. Quant's range of vibrant plastic raincoats, striking shift dresses, Mini skirts and tights were the toast of the Chelsea Set, the whole of London and by now much farther afield. In 1961, she had opened up a second Bazaar in Knightsbridge, an equally successful venture. By the mid 1960's demand was high, the optimism and feel good factor that was taking London by storm, fuelled by Sixties Pop culture, Mod fashions and economic prosperity was now travelling overseas, taking Quant's fashion philosophy along for a ride.

In 1963, the opportunity to design for JC Penney in the USA meant Mod Clothing that was born out of Swinging London was soon to be explored overseas, a mass market expedition for Quant's innovative Mod wares. JC Penney widely recognised as one of the US's largest retail chains had faith in Quant's ability to overhaul it's fashion house and promote a younger, fresher feel. An up to date image makeover would see Quant's Mod geometric pattern shift dresses, vibrant mini skirts and classic pinafores hit the shelves and become a massive hit with a whole new clientele. Swathes of colour, delightful designs to dress and impress... the Mod look was going global. JC Penney were overwhelmed by the success of the range and as sales soared Quant was inevitably kept on board. In the late 1960's Quant had huge success with her range of colourful hotpants. Another lasting impact on the landscape of British fashion history. 1967 saw a third shop open in London's New Bond Street.
Not since the 1920's had fashion witnessed such radical change. The social constructs of wealth and status that had previously dictated fashion trends were overhauled and affordable fashions levelled the playing field. As Quant herself would later remark:

"Snobbery has gone out of fashion, and in our shops you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dress."

Quant was awarded with the order of the British Empire for contributions to fashion in 1966. Further accolades followed and in 1990, Quant received an award from the British Fashion Council for her lasting impact in the fashion world.

Jean Shrimpton models a Mary Quant Dress. Photo by John French, 1963.

The end of the Sixties and the movement from Mod Fashion to Household Goods:

Prominence in Sixties Mod culture and fashion gave Quant the confidence to expand her offering. From cosmetics to household goods including duvets, bed linens, carpet designs, toys and more, Quant's influence was widespread. In 1988 she even designed the her very own Mini vehicle decorated with an array of familiar features. The cosmetics that she had started in 1966, offering wild colours to match her Mod Clothing designs would gain significantly in popularity through the 1970's and 1980's. Later in her career, the Mary Quant brand name was bought by a Japanese company and Quant finally stepped down as director in 2000.

* Ebeneezer Butterick created the first graded sewing pattern in 1863, changing the face of home sewing forever. The company he founded would go on to be one of the prominent players in DIY fashions.