As Hemlines Rise, So Do the Fortunes of Mini Mogul Mary Quant

updated 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Meet Mod(ern) Woman: Looking like a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Judy Jetson, she is young, sexy and adorable in a body-hugging top, thigh-high mini and black tights. It's a new look that's really an old look, born decades ago in dancing class. "I was 7 or 8," remembers London fashion designer Mary Quant, destined for fame as the mother of the mini. "This child did tap dancing in a skinny black sweater, very short pleated skirt, thick black tights with white ankle socks and black patent leather shoes. It was exactly the look I always wanted to achieve."

And it became the Look of swinging London in the '60s when Quant wrapped Twig(gy)-thin models in microminis and launched a fashion revolution. Now, like some poltergeist of the fashion world, the Quant Look is back, to the delight of the young and leggy and the fright of all who believe that less reveals too much more. Seventeen years after she closed her famous boutique, Bazaar, and joined the mini in fashion exile, Quant, now 54, is again selling minis—as well as cosmetics and other clothes—through mail order catalogs. She also has a chain of Mary Quant Colour Shops in Japan, Singapore and London, where she recently opened a new shop on Carnaby Street, the erstwhile Mod mecca. "Funnily enough," says fashion critic Felicity Green, "kids today think miniskirts are new and Mary Quant, who they know because of the cosmetics she's done for years, is branching out."

Which is a pity since the Quant legend is worth remembering. Setting '60s fashion styles from the front window of Bazaar, where Dick and Liz, Bardot and Beatles did their shopping, Quant spent the decade entertaining and outraging. Her aim, she said, was to dress women so men would "feel like tearing the wrapping off." When Queen Elizabeth awarded her the Order of the British Empire in 1966, the honoree curtseyed at court wearing a barely-there mini. She marketed "booby trap" bras and "makeup to make love in." She coined the fashion dictum "Good taste is death; vulgarity life" and had her pubic hair shaved in a heart shape because she thought it "a very pretty part of the female anatomy."

Born in London to schoolteacher parents, Quant wanted to be a designer "from the earliest I could remember. I was always trying to make my own clothes, contriving my own things." After meeting her future husband and business partner, Alexander Plunket Greene, at a London art college, she opened Bazaar in 1955 to sell clothes "for real people. Before, people were taught to regurgitate Parisian couture. A very odd way 'round—you don't make a little Rolls-Royce and call it everybody's car. What I wanted was not an apology for something else. People said it was the first democratization of fashion."

If so, the mini was Quant's Magna Charta. Designed to allow women "to dance, to move, to be," the mini caught on in 1962 because "Chelsea girls had the legs for it."

But the heady days of the '60s passed fast. After the birth of her son, Orlando, in 1970, Quant began designing household goods—sheets, curtains and wall coverings—and a few years later gave up London for a slower life at the couple's country home in Guildford, Surrey. "The nesting, cooking thing was where the appetite was in England," she says, "and it coincided with the rather broody way I was feeling, with my son being born."

Though Orlando is 17 now and in boarding school—"Girls," says Plunket Greene, 54, "are endlessly asking him to get them cut-price lipsticks and stockings, and he loves it"—his mom still prefers country to city living, despite some drawbacks. "I'm a bit off cows right now," says Quant, who recently recovered from a case of ringworm, which she had caught from her dog, who picked it up from the cows on the couple's estate. "My doctor said he hadn't seen a case like it in 50 years." Their marriage—more than 30 years of living and working together, with Quant handling design and Plunket Greene handling sales and promotion—must be almost as unique. "We like it," shrugs Quant. "It gives a nice broad range to our rows. You don't just quibble about the housekeeping. You've got this full breadth of possibilities to argue about." It also seems to be a system that works: Quant's dress shop has grown into a $150 million-a-year empire that includes housewares, cosmetics and clothing. Eighty percent of her profits come from Japan, where she has 101 clothing stores. "Nothing stops her," says Plunket Greene. "She maintains the spirit and friendliness of her 18-year-old self."

The spirit is evident in Quant's next project: the Mary Quant Mini Car, a limited edition black-and-silver Austin-Rover due in June. "Fashion is a very ongoing, renewing thing, about change and reaching for the next thing," says Quant. "You are permanently dissatisfied, and it's always got to get better."

—By Steve Dougherty, with Laura Sanderson Healy in London

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