Four elegant women in their mid 60s and 70s try on bold-coloured mini dresses. The room is abuzz with chatter and laughter as they recreate classic Sixties model poses in front of the camera, their still-fabulous legs flattered by the sky-high skirts.
The mini is this season’s big fashion story, seen on the catwalks at Valentino, Versace and Louis Vuitton, but these women are special. They modelled for Mary Quant at the start of their career, so wore the mini first time around.
They’ll be taking centre stage at a new exhibition of Mary’s work — to celebrate her 90th birthday — at the Victoria & Albert Museum next month.
Alongside pieces from the V&A’s archive and the designer’s own collection are treasured clothes and photographs donated or loaned by midlife women from all over the UK, who responded to the V&A’s call-out to help locate the lost designs; from hot pants, mini skirts and trousers to accessories, tights and make-up.
Karin Jensen, 70, Hazel Collins, Clare Hunt and Jill Kennington, 76, (pictured left to right) modelled for Dame Mary Quant in the Swinging Sixties, they recounted their experiences of working with the fashion pioneer
It’s hard to overestimate the influence Dame Mary Quant had on fashion. She invented the very concept of street style, pioneering the super-high hemlines which came to define the Swinging Sixties.
Before Quant, teens were expected to dress like mini-me versions of their parents in tweedy skirts and twinsets with pearls.
Inspired by the streamlined designs of Coco Chanel and the flappers of the Twenties, Quant paired short tunic dresses with tights in ochre, plum, ginger and grape, creating a high-fashion version of outfits she’d worn as a child.
Debate still rages whether it was Quant or French couturier André Courrèges who invented the mini skirt. Regardless, extremely short skirts and shift dresses became Quant’s trademark.
A revolution was going on in music, film, food and theatre, but it was Mary, a self-taught designer, who defined the look.
With her husband, Alexander Plunket Greene, she opened two boutiques — the first, Bazaar, on the ground floor of their house in Chelsea. The day’s sales paid for the cloth which was made up overnight into new stock for the following day.
Frequented by the Chelsea Set, it offered a radically different shopping experience. Loud music, free drinks and bold window displays created a ‘scene’ that often kept going late into the evening.
So that ordinary working women could afford her clothes, Quant created the cheaper diffusion line, Ginger Group, in 1963, sold in department stores around the country. As many as seven million women had at least one of her designs in their wardrobes, with more still wearing her cosmetics range.
She was a powerful role model, with her influence extending beyond fashion. ‘I didn’t have time to wait for women’s lib,’ she famously declared. She certainly empowered other women, especially when it came to her models. Here, four Mary Quant protegés reveal the impact the designer had on their lives . . .
ME TOO? WE JUST LAUGHED IT OFF
Karin Jensen, 70, was a model for Mary Quant from 1966-1970. She lives in Spain and is married to Johnny, with three grown-up children and three grandchildren.
Karin Jensen (pictured modelling for Mary Quant) became a model at Mary’s South Molton Street showroom after a period of working as a model in Paris
My mother died when I was 17. I was about to do the debutante season, just before I was sent to France to learn about wine.
I never did the season but went to Moët et Chandon to work for a short time before I got bored and took off for Paris to model.
When I came back to London, I became one of Mary’s house models at her South Molton Street showroom. Our agents took months to pay us, but it was good fun.
I remember Mary once took us to do a show in Barcelona in this incredible nightclub. Models from other countries came on, walking beautifully to classical music. We came on in the mini skirts smoking cigarettes to Sergeant Pepper.
Mary also took me to Sweden — she thought I was Swedish because of my surname. A friend, who did speak Swedish, taught me to say: ‘Listen, they think I can speak Swedish but I can’t.’ The Press were falling about with laughter and Mary was telling me: ‘You’re wonderful.’
Mary was the first designer to use upholstery fabric. I remember borrowing a trouser suit with matching hat for a wedding. I walked into the reception and the sofas were covered in the same Sanderson’s fabric. So I went and sat on them!
We did all our own make-up. There were no decent cosmetics, so we used to use Caran d’Ache pencils. Mary watched us and one of the first make-up lines she brought out were these big fat eye colour pencils — and that was us. She was so clever and picked up on all the silly little trends we were using.
Karin (pictured now) who began doing up people’s houses after she stopped modelling, revealed she and Mary gave birth to sons at the same time
We used to meet up with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones in clubs. A friend dated Keith Richards. We all got on, whatever background we came from.
It was the era of the Pill. When I hear all these terrible MeToo stories coming out now, I think we had people coming onto us the whole time but we just used to laugh it off.
I modelled for Richard Avedon, Norman Parkinson and Terence Donovan, but carried on doing catwalk shows for Mary. I had my first son the same time as Mary had her son, Orlando. We had the same gynaecologist and the boys were born in the same hospital.
After I left modelling, I began doing up people’s houses. I’m fascinated by colour. Once you’ve been a model and looked after yourself, you can’t let it go. I never leave the house without make-up.
I’m horrified by the price of clothes here. Today, I shop at markets in Spain and at Zara’s sister brand, Lefties. I rarely talk about my past but my granddaughter, who’s 12, thinks it’s quite cool that Granny was a model.
I ESCAPED OVER THE CONVENT WALL
Hazel Collins modelled for Mary Quant from 1970-1977. She lives in London with her husband, Bill, a property developer.
By the time I became a model, mini skirts were part of society. At school, we’d roll up our waistbands when no one was looking.
Mary discovered me when she came to give a talk at my convent school. I was 14 and very shy. It took her ages to convince me that modelling was respectable — and that model wasn’t another name for hooker!
Hazel Collins (pictured right with fellow model Clare Hunt) who modelled for Mary Quant from 1970-1977, recalls the designer being very protective of her
I came from a straight-laced family who wanted me to become a doctor or lawyer, but I sneaked out by climbing over the convent wall (the whole dorm was in on it).
Mary’s husband, Alexander, picked me up in his Rolls-Royce and took me to their country house. I was shot by Terry O’Neill.
After that, I kept being booked by Mary. She adored me and I adored her. We were very much a family unit. When Mary launched her make-up range in 1971, I went to New York with her.
She always asked our opinions. I remember once being shown a see-through top. I said: ‘No way am I putting that on’, so Mary took it out of the collection. Simple as that.
They were very protective of me — worse than my parents in a way. They would tell me dreadful stories about photographers and the fashion industry. In hindsight I think they were making sure I modelled only for them.
Mary was a revolutionary. She launched the freedom movement. She gave women the confidence to love themselves and their bodies. Why be all demure and sweet? Do what you want!
Hazel (pictured at the launch of Quant’s new Ginger Group and Knitwear Collections for Autumn 1972) says all of the girls who modelled for Mary are still in touch
I never thought of myself as a model. It was never about money or ego. For me, the most important person was Mary — she was our mentor. We got a complete education in how to behave and not be too full of ourselves.
We didn’t realise we were the pretty people! We weren’t at all like the girls now. Today, fashion seem so mucky and corporate — it’s all about how many millions models can make in a second.
But Mary and Alexander took us into this new world. Vidal Sassoon cut our hair, we did shows at the Ritz. For every collection we’d go down the Kings Road in a Mary Quant bus. Every newspaper, magazine and TV show wanted Mary. It was so exciting.
I retired in 2003 to take care of my mother, but all of us Mary girls are still in touch. We meet up and phone. We got to work with a genius — we were so blessed.
HOW I INSPIRED MARY’S MAKE-UP
Clare Hunt modelled for Mary Quant from 1971-1978. She lives in London and is married to Ronnie Stirling, co-founder of Sixties fashion company, Stirling Cooper.
I grew up in Cheshire and made all my own clothes, but I knew I had to get to London. I was a big fan of Mary Quant before I even met her. I remember my sister bought a black silk jersey top with cut-away armholes and we both wore that for years.
All the underwear then was so old-fashioned, but Mary’s was wonderful, so modern. It was like a breath of fresh air, light and free, with her daisy logo. I bought mine from Kendals in Manchester.
Clare Hunt (pictured modelling for Mary) began working with the fashion designer when her deals for shoes, tights and jewellery were taking off
I arrived in London in 1971 and joined Askew model agency, where I secured a weekly advance so I could be part of a flat share in Kensington. I was all set to go.
Soon I was working with Mary and Vidal Sassoon. Mary was such fun to work for and so free-thinking. You did things for love and enthusiasm then — the money wasn’t important.
I wasn’t part of Mary’s initial Sixties geometric wave. I came along when her licensing deals for shoes, tights and jewellery were taking off. I remember when she got a spectacle licence, we all got free sunglasses.
Once, I went to see Mary for a fitting wearing my Twenties look: black coat, fox fur, dark eyeshadow to which I had added a slick of Vaseline to make my lids shine.
Mary noticed straight away, ‘What’s that on your eyelids? It looks great.’ Next thing, there’s a ‘wet look’ in her make-up line. She was totally on the ball.
Clare (pictured) who went on to become a fashion photographer recalls Mary being quite shy and speaking short sentences
Mary was quite shy. She slightly hid behind her fringe and spoke in quick, short sentences as ideas poured out of her.
Her husband, Alexander, had a mischievous sense of humour, but he was a gentleman and was so supportive of Mary.
I met my husband, Ronnie, when I went to his wholesale showroom for samples for a modelling assignment in Australia. Ronnie had one of the most successful fashion companies of the era, Stirling Cooper. All the models went there for their clothes.
Later, I became a fashion photographer, did interior and garden design, and now I’ve moved on to portrait sculpture — but I still love fashion.
MARY’S BOUTIQUE JUST BLEW ME AWAY
Jill Kennington, 76, modelled for Mary Quant from 1962-1969. A top model, she starred in the 1966 cult film Blow-Up. She is married to Richard Courtauld, and has two grown-up daughters, a step-daughter and a grandson, and lives in Dorset.
Growing up on a farm in Lincolnshire, I had this huge compulsion to go to London. Age 19, I arrived to live with an aunt who worked as a buyer at Harrods.
I got a job there, and one day I bowled out at lunchtime and saw this amazing boutique called Bazaar [Mary Quant’s shop]. It was vibrant, full of colour.
Back then, you couldn’t find clothes for teenagers — seeing Bazaar was like a light going on.
Jill Kennington (pictured modelling for Mary) says her adventure began with Mary, she then went on to work for Helmut Newton and magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar
Before long, I met an agent, started as a model and just zoomed up. Norman Hartnell picked me as his mascot, then photographer John Cowan introduced me to Mary.
I modelled her mini skirts and did many pictures for her running and jumping. I remember buying a Mini for £500 and getting it spray-painted purple to match my favourite purple Quant outfit.
Her shows were totally different. Her girls were fresh and energetic rather than toffee-nosed. We had fun dancing to jazz or wandering among the tables of fashion editors and chatting to them, rather than a formal catwalk.
I remember buying my first car, a Mini, and getting it spray-painted purple to match my Mary Quant outfit. As a generation we learned to grasp life – MODEL JILL KENNINGTON
My adventure began with Mary, and later I worked with Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon. I went to the Arctic Circle and the desert with Vogue. And I filmed Blow Up, much of it shot in John Cowan’s studio.
In the Seventies I lived in Paris and Rome and continued globetrotting for such magazines as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
Later, I bought a Nikon and started taking pictures myself. In the V&A exhibition there will be a lovely portrait of Mary which I took (see cover)s.
Sometimes I think: ‘Oh God, I’m quite old now.’ But the key is to stay curious. We’re the generation who learned to grasp life.
The Mary Quant exhibition is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, from April 6 to February 16, 2020; vam.ac.uk