The complete innovator: Mary Quant
Last week saw the passing of one of the 20th century’s great innovators: the fashion designer Mary Quant.
Quant has been recognised for the popularity and impact of her designs. For me, however it is the completeness and radicalism of design process and innovation that inspires me.
Profound innovation is always multi-dimensional, bringing together developments in different fields a synthesis that in turn re-transforms those sources. In the case of Mary Quant, she realised new possibilities in materials, techniques, designs and social conventions, brought them together in extraordinarily bold ways and, in doing so, forever changed materials, techniques, designs and social conventions in turn.
Her work reflected and, in turn, impacted the rapidly changing society of the 1960s and catered to the desires of a young, emerging generation. She observed that the young were tired of wearing essentially the same as their mothers. It needed more than a change of style to revolutionise London in the Sixties - it needed all the dynamics that Quant brought together in her own boutique in the King’s Road.
Quant embraced materials like PVC for rainwear and footwear, and nylon for hosiery, which allowed her to create products with unique properties and aesthetics. But new materials were not enough: new techniques were essential too. The Nylon Hosiery Company (founded by an Indian family recently moved to England) had developed a method of making a pair of nylon stockings joined into tights or pantyhose. This enabled Quant to design fabulously colourful bold hosiery, but also to lift the hemline of her dresses for her most famous innovation - the miniskirt. Quant herself was always modest about inventing this garment - there had been plenty of short skirts before, and Courrèges had also shortened hemlines in Paris. But it was Quant who uniquely brought together the materials, the design, the brightly coloured tights … and the ensuing social frenzy. (And just to correct a common mistake, the dress was named after the equally swinging car, not the other way round.)
Miniskirts today may seem merely sexualised accessories, but at the time they were immensely practical: suitable, if daring, for work and study and for going out in the evening, without having to return to the suburban parental home to change.
Quant’s miniskirts were not just skirts, but often jersey-knit shift or sack dresses. And that required another material breakthrough (frame-knitted wooden fabric bonded to an acrylic backing) which made for a seamless, unstructured shift dress that was easy to wear and care for. These materials. provided functionality and durability, as well as a fresh, modern look. We take jersey-knit for granted now (your good hoodies and t-shirts are cotton jersey) but in terms of its functionality and its drape - perfect for those sinuous sixties dances - it was a huge improvement over the structured, seamed garments of the 50s.
I could go on. Trousers for women? I had not realised how influential Quant had been in that evolution until I saw an exhibition at the V&A a few years ago: Six Revolutionary Designs By Mary Quant Her footwear line was unusually flat-heeled, and therefore comfortable, for the time. One section of the exhibit was devoted to designs so radical that stores didn’t know in which department to sell them!
What stands out for me about Quant is the multi-dimensionality of her innovation, the consequent emergence of new ideas from those multiple developments and the way in which her designs met a social need and at the same time created a social revolution.
For techies, you could say that Jony Ive achieved something similar with the fusion of new technologies and materials (Gorilla Glass) in the iPhone. But for would-be innovators, or for those struggling to put together new ideas in our own revolutionary age, Quant’s dazzling, physical innovation should be inspiring. Materials, techniques, designs and social impact - that’s the example she laid out for us. Go for it!
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