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Thursday 8 November 2012

Book Review: Quant by Quant

"I just think my life has been wonderful and how lucky I am. And can I have it all over again please?" Mary Quant

I'll admit that before reading Quant by Quant: The Autobiography of Mary Quant, I didn't really know much about the iconic fashion designer, aside from the things everyone knows about her:
  • She popularised the miniskirt
  • See also: hotpants
  • She had her trademark bob cut by Vidal Sassoon
  • She may or may not have invented waterproof mascara (and if this is a True Fact, a big thank you for that, Mary)
  • She basically epitomised the Swinging Sixties
And now that I've read the book? Well, I feel like I know a whole lot more about her - chiefly, that she's witty, inspirational, and knows how to tell a terrific tale.

Originally published in 1966, and reprinted this month by V&A Publishing, Mary's autobiography, focusing on her early years of success, is engaging from the very first page (indeed, this edition has a new foreword by Quant, with some cracking stuff about nightingales and blackbirds and the French eating terrine). Her writing is both familiar and compelling - and this slim volume is a quick (but by no means insubstantial) read as a result.

We are immediately introduced to Alexander, Mary's future husband and business partner. "[Alexander and I] had already determined that somehow we would find a way of earning our living together", she says of their whirlwind decision to open a restaurant, Alexander's, and boutique, Bazaar, on the King's Road. What follows is a truly exhilarating account of their trials and tribulations, and ultimately their tremendous successes. From rookie mistakes and risk-taking, to Mary's decision to design and manufacture more of Bazaar's stock - "I couldn't find the things I wanted", she says. "I decided that I would have to try and make these things myself." - we witness a global fashion brand being born.

Quant's stories of London in the late 50s and early 60s are brilliantly vivid, and interspersed with snippets from her private life and childhood. Life is a crazy mix of high glamour and stomach-churning moments of being completely penniless. I loved reading her madcap tales of giant lobsters (a window display gone wrong); expensive lunches wearing inappropriate outfits ("[Alexander] hadn't been able to get hold of a shirt, so he had just painted buttons down his chest"); and the terrific stunts the couple pulled to spice up their art college days. However, it's her views on the fashion industry, and the reasons she gives for designing - "I had always wanted the young to have fashion of their own" - that are especially interesting, and will motivate anyone dithering on the edge of a huge, life-changing career move.

This book is infused with optimism - a reflection of the incredible success Mary was enjoying at the time of its publication. The world was still her oyster, her star still on its ascent. As I was reading, I found myself feeling grateful that she'd written it at the height of her popularity, while her mistakes and triumphs were fresh and new, and not clouded or edited by decades of hindsight. It wasn't until I'd finished the book that I realised she was younger than I am now when she wrote Quant by Quant. Wow.

Quant by Quant is a must-buy for those with an interest in fashion, but really, it's a rollicking good read for anyone in search of inspiration. Read it on your morning commute (unless you drive to work - I am not condoning reading at the wheel), and look around at your stylish fellow passengers. "All women", says the designer, "whether they go to work on a bus or in a Bentley, worry about what to wear." Nowadays, we have Quant to thank for dispelling those worries - by making fashion accessible, affordable, and more importantly, fun. Mary - we like your style.

Quant by Quant: The Autobiography of Mary Quant is published by V&A Publishing, with an RRP of £8.99. You can save yourself a whopping 90p by buying it from Amazon for £8.09, though, or get the Kindle edition for £6.08

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