It is May; a month full of blossom, bluebells and bank holidays. As it is still windy lots of that blossom is blowing about and ending up like confetti on my hall carpet. Little children are totally confused – they are back at school, but it feels like Easter isn’t over yet! Then, they discovered that they will have May day off and in a twinkling of an eye it will be half term! If they are older public exams loom ahead.
I had a few days off over Easter and spent one of them at the Mary Quant Exbition currently showing at the V&A. It is wonderful. If you are female and a business person I think it is compulsory viewing.
For me it was a trip down memory lane. Quant was the mood music of my teens and when I was about 14 I actually met her and her husband. It was a weird situation. Rackham’s in Birmingham was a big, rather exclusive department store then. Its demographic was middle aged, middle class and middle brow but for some reason they decided to put on three free fashion shows featuring Mary’s designs – only Quant designs. About six of us heard about it and turned up ready to blag our way in.
First business lesson – know your audience and play to them. We were the only people there. My guess is that the normal Rackhams’ customer had never heard of Mary Quant and was not likely to buy one of her minidresses or skirts. Neither could we! We could not afford it, but we appreciated what she was doing.
The consequence was that Mary and her husband, Alexander Plunket Greene were thrilled that we turned up; chatted to us enthusiastically but not as patronising grown-ups and persuaded us to stay for all three shows. Second business lesson – counting the audience does not mean they are all fresh faces; the figures might lie!
Then they gave us each one of the fantastic make up compacts – shadows and blushers in a swanky white compact with a black daisy and a wonderful cartoon style “how to” leaflet – there had been nothing like it before. These were gifts but we could afford them, and I think we all converted to this amazing new make up immediately. Third business lesson – use every opportunity to wed people to your brand.
What an amazing triumvirate they were: Mary Quant the name and creative genius, designing everything and even making some of the clothes in those early days of Bazaar (Wikipedia tells me it opened in 1957 – I am too young to remember this!). Then Alexander Plunket Greene her ex musician husband who had a brand vision. Remember this was long before Virgin, Easy or Apple where entrepreneurs could see that a trusted name could carry a brand over many different products successfully. The daisy was genius. And the third person was Archie McNair, less well known, the one who was strong on financial management and kept them solvent as they grew. At the time there were plenty of bankruptcies as the designers over-reached themselves, witness Geoff Banks for one. Fourth business lesson – control the finances but do not let them confine you, use other people’s cash to develop.
They were each brilliant in their own fields but flexible and worked well together. Fifth business lesson – create and nurture a complementary team.
One tiny boutique in Chelsea charging big money for exclusive designs grew into an enterprise covering all types of garments with tie ins to the manufacturers which produced items affordable for young working women. Ginger Group was developed as the accessible range; Alligator produced wonderful wet look macs (a bright red one saw me through university); coloured tights in daisy packaging were everywhere; and then there was the make-up range full of innovative new products with fantastic cartoon instructions. For the first time those of us without cheek bones could create them! Everything was fun, funky and practical. Sixth business lesson – develop your brand and use it to commit your customers to it in a big way.
No one is sure whether Mary Quant actually invented the mini skirt, but she certainly named it after the car. In 1988 they actually got her to design a special edition Mini which came in either white or black and had a daisy in the middle of the steering wheel. I never saw one live, only photographs but aspirational.
What a fantastic day out! A design story and a business story that are both about huge success. If you want to go the exhibition it is on until 16 February 2020. By the way Mary Quant is 89 – what an inspiration she has been.
Whilst I am talking about fashion, my charity project this year is to raise money for the Bedford Foodbank. We are having a Swishing evening on 22 May at Bedford Golf Club. Never heard of swishing? You know those garments, shoes or bags that are not quite the right colour, or not a good fit, or not quite the right style. They come out of the wardrobe, you look at them and then put them back! Bring those along and swop them for something that does work for you. £15 per ticket including a glass of prosecco; swops come free. For tickets see https://swishinggreenexchangebedford.eventbrite.co.uk. If you want further information please give me a call.
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