Dame Mary Quant -The Definite Article. The Writer’s Cut

150 150 Rob McGibbon

This interview with Dame Mary was for The Definite Article column in the Daily Mail’s Weekend magazine. It was conducted over the phone in November 2012 and was published on 15th December.

The prized possession you value above all others…My home in Surrey. It was left to my late husband Alexander [and business partner Alexander Plunket Greene who died in 1990] by his great aunt, who designed it and had it built in 1928. We moved here not long after we got married in 1957. It’s a beautiful house that is full of wonderful memories and remains my sanctuary. This is where I am happiest.

The unqualified regret you wish you could amend…I have always loved painting and drawing, especially still life and flowers. There’s a part of me that wishes I had developed that side of my talent more and exhibited, but work was always so frenetic. Also, I am such a private person that I recoiled at the thought of showing my art, as it is quite revealing of myself.

The way you would spend your fantasy 24 hours, with no travel restrictions…I would have breakfast in the garden at home with my partner Anthony Rouse, then we would be transported to the Pembrokeshire coast in south west Wales for a bracing swim. The water is so wild and wonderful there. I love swimming and don’t mind if it’s freezing cold because that makes you feel so alive. We would then go to Lake Como, Italy, for a superb al fresco lunch at Il Pomodorino with my son Orlando and his wife and my three grand children – Lucas, 10, Allegra, eight, and Massimo, seven. I’d have risotto and some chilled white wine, then we would all walk, swim and relax in the afternoon by the lake. I would end the day staying at La Colombe d’Or hotel in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, in the South France.  

The temptation you wish you could resist…Wine, especially Pouilly Fume. I have always enjoyed not resisting temptation. Isn’t it the fun part of living? But I am 78 now and you have to be careful, so I try to resist drinking too much.  

The book that holds an everlasting resonance…The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling touched me deeply when I was a child. I am a great animal lover and this story reminds you of the potent effect animals have on our lives. 

The priority activity if you were the Invisible Woman for a day…It is not in my nature to want to spy on people. I can tell everything I need to know about a person from just looking at what they are wearing, or how they have done their make up. Why snoop around? 

The pet-hate that makes your hackles rise…That funerals have to be big happy celebrations! There seems a need these days for everything to be jolly, but whatever happened to sadness? If you are being true to your feelings, I don’t think there is anything wrong with a bit of wailing.

The film you can watch time and time again…Gone With The Wind. I have lost track of how many times I have seen it, but I still can’t resist dipping in again whenever it is on television. I love its grand scope and it’s kind of sexy, but in a romantic way. I always love Rhett Butler [Clark Gable] saying “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’.  I will never tire of that scene.

The person who has influenced you most…Alexander. I met him when I was a teenager at Goldsmiths art school and he had the most incredible influence on my life and career. He was tremendously outgoing and confident and had amazing ideas. He was like dynamite. He encouraged my designs and launched the business. Without his drive and fearlessness I honestly don’t think I would have achieved half the things I did. He was a wonderful man. 

The figure from history for whom you’d most like to buy a pie and a pint…The Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli. She was daring and brilliant and one of the truly great designers on the 20th century. I got to know her a little towards the end of her life in the late 60s and early 70s, but I’d love to go back in time to see how she was inspired when she was at her peak in the 1920s and 30s.

The piece of wisdom you would pass on to a child…Smile. It is so easy to do, yet so easy to forget. Smiling brings warmth and love into your life.  

The unlikely interest that engages your curiosity…I absolutely adore cows. They are the most fascinating, gentle and beautiful animals. Their eyes are so amazing. I have ten that live in the land around my house and they are adopted by us. I love to talk to them. There are few things better than falling asleep in a field and being woken up by an inquisitive cow. 

The treasured item you lost and wish you could have again…My wedding ring. It was a chunky gold circle handmade for me by the jewellery designer Gerda Flockinger. It was always a bit loose and three years ago it fell off in a car park outside The Volunteer pub near Dorking. It was nighttime and I couldn’t find it. I went back the next day, but it was gone and I was heartbroken. If anyone can return it to me I will be forever grateful…

The unending quest that drives you on…Curiosity. I like to keep my mind active and up to date with the latest fashions and make up. I hope to never lose that sense of needing to know.

The poem that touches your soul…I love poetry and I have written quite a lot, but the Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect piece of poetry and surpasses all poems. I always feel at peace and moved when I recite it. I love nothing better than sitting in a quiet church on my own, just thinking. 

The misapprehension about yourself you wish you could erase…That I am a confident extrovert. Even now people associate me with those glamorous photos from the 60s, but I am actually incredibly shy. Somehow I become a completely different person when I need to give a talk in public and can do it no problem. It is a strange contradiction because that is not me at all.

The event that altered the course of your life and character…Visiting Japan in the early 70s had the most incredible influence on me because its culture is so different. It changed the way I designed and my entire perspective on life. I found the women particularly fascinating. I virtually commuted to that country for many years and it took my career onto an even bigger world stage. I also discovered sushi, which I love to this day!   

The crime you would commit knowing you could get away with it…I would find an ingenious way to embezzle one of the big bad banks and distribute the money to family and friends – keeping a healthy slice of it for myself! 

The song that means most to you…Bring Me Sunshine by Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Alexander used to sing it to me whenever things were going wrong and it always cheered me up. It is so funny and silly that it helps you get everything into perspective and be happy.  

The happiest moment you will cherish forever…Getting my OBE in 1966. I had never imagined I would be getting an award from the Queen. It was such a huge honour and I distinctly remember going to the Palace. As the Queen pinned it on me, she said simply, “More exports please!” It was typical of her to get right to the point.    

The saddest time that shook your world…Alexander’s death. He was only 57 and it was ghastly losing him. He was such an exuberant, wonderful man and I still miss him. Andrew was also a great friend of his and misses him, too.  

The unfulfilled ambition that continues to haunt you…I long for my garden to be complete. Working in it is one of my joys and I spend a fortune on planting and keeping it looking special. Obviously, it will never be finished because it is forever changing with the seasons.

The philosophy that underpins your life…Find time to stop and really appreciate your life. Ensure you enjoy it!  

The order of service at your funeral…I don’t like to think about dying because I am still having so much fun. I went to Vidal Sassoon’s funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral in October and it was the best funeral I have ever been to. The music and the readings were just perfect, faultless. His family did the most amazing job, so I will leave the decisions to my family. But I will be happy with a small, private funeral at a church that is dear to me near my home. I would also like my ashes scattered in my garden.

The way you want to be remembered…As the girl who made clothes and make up that brought a touch of fun and colour into people’s lives.    

Barbara Mary Quant was born on 11th April 1930 in Woolwich, London. She died at home in Surry aged 93 on 13th April 2023. RIP.

Copyright: Rob McGibbon