Dan Ahwa & Kate Sylvester

In Conversation: The significant influence of Mary Quant on Kate Sylvester

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In response to the exhibition 'Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary', on display now at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, New Zealand fashion designer Kate Sylvester sat down with fashion director Dan Ahwa to discuss the enduring impact the British fashion icon has made on her career. 

Dan Awha: Hi Kate, thanks for taking the time to chat. Towards the exhibition opening last month we talked about how at age 14 you came across Mary Quant’s autobiography, Quant by Quant (1966), at a school fair. What was it like delving into this introduction to Mary Quant at such a formative age?

Kate Sylvester:The book blew my mind, really, and set my whole direction and career.

I’d always been interested in clothes; that was all I did – play dress-ups and make cut-out dolls. Her autobiography is the most charming, most fantastic book – it’s written as if she’s chatting to you about all those crazy days on King’s Road in London in the 60s, and she talks through how she and her husband Alexander Plunkett-Greene created their business.

I devoured it. I’ve read it so many times, I’ve underlined bits, I’ve made notes. Even now when I flick back through, there’s just so much that she talks about in the book that still resonates so strongly with me.

She started out by making clothes for herself and for her friends, and that’s one of the things that’s always driven me; making clothes for my life and for women to live in.

She talks about how to put your wardrobe together with separates and how they’re so much more affordable than dresses, about grading and how it works in different sizes – it just covers the whole spectrum.

The book explains how the two of them (Quant and husband Plunkett-Greene) literally built their first store and how she made all the original clothes. If anybody knows our story with my partner Wayne (Conway) and myself – they know that’s exactly how we started off too, so I can’t overstate what an amazing impact Mary Quant’s had on me.

DA: We’ve had this conversation about the differences between female fashion designers creating clothes for women and male fashion designers creating clothes for women, particularly with the recent death of French designer Thierry Mugler, who was the polar opposite to the type of designer that Mary Quant was. Can you talk about what you think the differences are when it comes to how when male designers design for women and how women design for women?

KS: It really fascinates me – I particularly noticed it when I flicked through his obituaries. I understand that he was very creative, but every image made me flinch. There is a time and a place for costume, but the whole time that I’m designing I’m thinking about how these clothes will work in my daily life.

This was the same with my other icons – Mary Quant, Chanel, Claire McArdle – it was all about creating clothes for living in. I’ve always felt sceptical seeing a show of extremely exaggerated clothes when at the end of it a male designer walks out in jeans and a t-shirt – I think, ‘really? Have you thought about how you’d last for four hours in those creations?!’. I know that there are women designers who create more theatrical pieces and there are also male designers, like Roy Halston, who create beautiful, wearable pieces. It fascinates me how different people approach to design.

DA: Mary Quant was really great at understanding the power of mass and how to appeal to a wider demographic. Her clothes really marked a time of freedom, exuberance, sexual liberation, and it’s clear in the exhibition and in her interviews over the years that fashion was more than just clothing but rather more of a comment on society and the changing times. So what do you think fashion is trying to say now?

KS: So much! I think this is one of the things that I love about fashion – it’s always a commentary on where society is at any time, and at the moment there are some really interesting dialogues happening.

An incredibly positive, exciting thing that fashion is trying to do now is to become more inclusive and more diverse, and there’s just so much interesting commentary around playing with gender and playing with sizing, which is very much a reflection of where we are in society.

Everybody is trying to figure out how we want to move forward as individuals and collectively, and clothes are always so much a part of any wider issues in society. I guess that’s where it comes back to thinking about who’s going to wear your clothes and how they are going to wear them

DA: That’s a very interesting point that you’ve made because I think at Viva over the years we’ve adapted to the market and how people want to wear clothes now. One of the things that we’ve noticed is the comfort of nostalgia, especially when times are really tough. This exhibition comes at a great moment in time for that reason: I feel that the clothes somehow really do offer some kind of comfort in a way. I want to ask you about how, in 2022, the role of nostalgia plays in your work as a designer?

KS: That’s an interesting question because I love history and fashion history and I am always looking backward for reference, but I also think it’s important that – and I think this is universal with fashion – it’s always about moving forwards. If you’re looking back, if you’re referencing history, you should try not to do it literally or be too nostalgic.

You always want to take the historical ideas and work out how to push them forwards to represent them in a contemporary way and to interpret them for our lives now. For me, that’s always an interesting aspect of design – continually making sure that you’re pushing ideas forward and you’re not always stuck in the past.

DA: That leads me to the next question because I watched a video of Mary Quant in an interview in which she talks about that very idea of fashion and what it represents. She was really clear in conveying that fashion is about an attitude – it’s the food that we eat, it’s the way we communicate, it’s the way that we talk to people. What does fashion mean to you?

KS: Absolutely – I agree with her completely. The clothes are just part of the big picture of how we live our lives. What we wear is how we want to present ourselves to the world; it’s figuring out what we want to say about ourselves, who we are, and how we project that. It can work two ways, because it can work in a very tribal way – i.e., people will want to wear specific clothes so that they are recognised as being part of a particular tribe – but then also it’s very much about how you want to speak as an individual as well.

Sitting here today, giving a talk at the Gallery, it’s very important to me that I convey that I’m a strong, confident, intelligent woman, and hopefully, I’m projecting that!

<p><em>Viva</em>, cover, 8 Dec 2021.</p>

Viva, cover, 8 Dec 2021.

DA: I think the concept of the independent, intelligent woman is a description that we can’t deny of Kate Sylvester

KS: To me that’s what fashion is – it’s an extension of the dressing up that I did as a kid and it’s just what I want to say to the world. For people who love fashion, we say that through clothes.

DA: Do you own any of Mary Quant’s pieces?

KS: I guess I do, but they’re not clothes – even before I bought the ‘Bible’ (Mary Quant’s autobiography, Quant By Quant), I spent my whole life playing with Daisy Dolls, which I still own, and making Daisy Doll clothes. I even had one of the colouring-in books that’s in the exhibition.

Just by having Mary Quant’s Daisy logo so visible in my life and growing up with the Daisy Dolls and everything – that was such an influence. We (Wayne and I) were so obsessed for so long with creating a distinctive logo for our brand. It took a long time to get it right and that’s definitely a Mary influence as well.

<p>Image credit: &#39;Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary&#39; (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2021.&nbsp;</p>

Image credit: 'Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary' (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2021. 

<p>Mary Quant tights and shoes, about 1965.<br />
Image courtesy Mary Quant Archive / Victoria and Albert Museum, London</p>

Mary Quant tights and shoes, about 1965.
Image courtesy Mary Quant Archive / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

DA: As someone who is also a good businesswoman, Mary Quant was quite similar in that she really understood, as I mentioned before, the mass market – she had her diffusion line, she had makeup, she even had dolls. When you think about designing your collections, who do you think about?

KS: It's about building the wardrobes that my customers and I want, so it’s quite a personal process. I think through specific pieces that will be good for particular people. What’s important to me is that it is a very broad collection that makes sure that there are pieces for all the different women in my world. That’s the last thing I want to do – create a uniform for just one person.

It’s got to work for a lot of different women in lots of different life situations. But beyond the practical side of the design is the fun side of the design, which is the storytelling and the creative building of the collection. I see so many parallels between myself and how Mary Quant created gorgeous little outfits from men’s suiting, jersey pieces and sportswear. Looking around and finding the reference that you want to adapt to create the clothes – that’s the fun of creativity.

DA: And also the creativity of textiles, which Mary was an expert at – she was really quite modern in her approach. Her influence goes beyond hot pants and the miniskirt – she innovatively used different materials like jersey, a lot of PVC, towelling fabrics, Jute, and some beautiful William Morris prints. For someone like yourself who has a passion for fabric, were you drawn to the way that Mary Quant worked with different materials as a designer?

KS: I’m actually very jealous of what she got to do, because back then in 60s and 70s Britain they still had a thriving textile industry, so she was able to work directly with mills to create fabrics

She talks in the book about how they’d talk about new ideas in the mill and then the next day they’d come back with a whole new fabric. That was a remarkable time, and we do not have that same kind of freedom and exposure to the mills now.

Back in the first few years when I started as a designer in New Zealand, we still had a merino knitting mill here making fabric, which was fantastic, but everything has gone offshore now, and that distance makes it so much harder. For us, any fabric development is a lot harder and there’s not the same freedom. I absolutely can’t create as many fabrics as I’d like – we have to do a lot more sourcing of existing fabrics now. So I’m quite envious of what she was able to do back then.

DA: And you’ve also worked to create your own specific prints.

KS: That’s absolutely something that we can still do – and is something that’s totally achievable to develop long-distance. There is some great fabric development that we can do that’s really fun, but in Mary Quant’s time, they were literally weaving new fabrics.

DA: Mary Quant was integral in revitalising the retail scene, especially with her first boutique, Bazaar, in Chelsea in 1955, which was pivotal in changing the game by creating a space where people felt like they could be there – they could listen to music and have a drink while shopping – so shopping there was very much a leisurely pursuit and a stark contrast to the stale department stores at that time. With regards to how you approach the retail experience for your customers, have you learned anything from Mary’s guidebook?

KS: Yes, your retail store very much needs to be an extension of what you’re saying about your clothes, and creating a store is all about creating the world that you want your clothes to inhabit

Our stores’ aesthetic has evolved from the original one, but in some ways, there are still some key elements that have remained the same: there’s still some of the handmade and craft elements in the Commercial Bay store, including a whole wall that Wayne has made that’s essentially filigree metalwork based on the patterns of brogue shoes.

But it’s not just the fit-out but also the music that we play, the girls that we hire to work in the stores. It’s very much about what you do with the store and the environment – you’re creating a family, a community where customers can come and hang out.

DA: Plus there’s definitely a great connection between the retail experience and your shows – the music is always incredible. I want to move on to personal style, and how Mary Quant personifies so much about the emancipation of women and the ‘youthquake’ rebellion of the 60s in her leading the charge with her audacious designs. Can you share with us a moment where you used fashion to rebel, and what you were wearing?

KS: When I first thought about this, I thought about the mohawk I had at school, and how I wore a tutu to sports day because I hated sports.

But our rebellion statement really was not just wearing the clothes, but also making the clothes – it was the early 90s and feminism was so strong. We created these stencilled t-shirts that were very much feminist statements: we used derogatory put-downs like ‘she gets around’, ‘you know you want it’ to take ownership of those phrases and turn them into the sort of celebratory messages.

Those t-shirts were actually pivotal for our brand, because as with any small brand starting up, it was a real struggle, and these t-shirts (the originals of which Wayne spray-painted himself), were incredibly successful and were one of the things that got us going as a brand.

DA: One of the quotes that Mary is well known for is ‘good taste is death, vulgarity is life’. I personally am partial to a little bad taste as good taste, but what does having good taste mean to Kate Sylvester?

KS: I’m not so damning of good taste as Mary, because my idea of good taste is something that’s understated and beautiful – there’s nothing wrong with that. I think the issue more is if you play it too safe.

It’s so much better if you’re wearing an elegant cream suit and you throw on a really crazy neon lipstick to go with it. I think it’s always good to skew things a little bit; that’s way more fun. We don’t want to be put to sleep – we want to have fun!


* This transcript was taken from a recording of a conversation with Kate Sylvester at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki as part of the public programme for 'Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary', a V&A touring exhibition on display at the Gallery until 13 March.