A rainy afternoon at the end of January, I found myself driving into the depths of rural Suffolk to meet a woman who has since become one of my biggest inspirations; Heather Tilbury Phillips. And not just because of her love of dogs (including appreciation of my own), although this did win me over more than I care to admit.
On the 6th April, the V&A opened the doors to an exhibition exploring the achievements of revolutionary designer Mary Quant. But it is not just Mary who is an inspiration. Not only did Heather help put this exhibition together, but she was part of the revolution herself, working for decades with Quant as a director of the company.
Heather’s stories are an insight into a world of fun fashion. Quant may be a giant name, but it was a small company. Heather was one of only six directors, three of whom were the original founders of the brand. The benefits of such a small team was the dynamic, which made Heather ‘so happy,’ as she ‘enjoyed it enormously and got on very well with everybody.’ Heather recounted ‘hysterical meetings, usually with a glass of wine,’ and many wild, out of the box ideas. Ideas which went on to act as a springboard for those which later became world renowned, because ‘many crazy ideas had a kernel which we knew would work’. Now this may not have been true of their master plan to install a commode into the front seat of a mini cooper so that one could relieve oneself in a traffic jam. Or the petrol pump style hoover which would automatically vacuum the dusty contents of your car. But as mad as this seems, ‘cry-baby’ waterproof mascara, colourful tights (only previously seen in the realms of theatre), using PVC in fashion, bringing dark colours into interior design, and manufacturing glittery nail varnish may have also initially been received by the team ‘falling about laughing’. That is until the details were ironed out, and the possibilities embraced.
A crazy atmosphere fostered creativity, and Heather professes that she found it ‘incredibly empowering’ to have her ideas nurtured rather than shot down. This was aided by the open plan, collaborative style of the office, in which the directors bounced ideas off each other throughout the day. Pausing in her train of thought, Heather strongly asserted she ‘never felt there was a glass ceiling’. This may have been just good luck and fortunate surroundings, but I am inclined to believe otherwise. Now into her 70s, Heather is still working flat out; the exhibition is testament to that. If she wants something to happen, it happens.
It may not be surprising that working with the likes of Mary Quant enabled some restraints of the decade to fall by the wayside. Mary’s own rejection of the social norms is summed up by her fondness of likening herself not to the Daisy doll she created, but her tomboy counterpart ‘Havoc’. Quant was one of the first designers to create makeup for men, use black models, and encourage her models to dance and have fun on the runway rather than simply walk it. But, most notably of all, Mary Quant has been accredited with inventing the mini skirt. Although Mary herself insists it was her customers who did this for her, requesting shorter and shorter hemlines, the impact it had on the reclaiming of sexuality that defined second wave feminism cannot be understated. Mary Quant was not just an innovator, but a very determined one at that. Heather remembers her firm encouragement of those who worked towards creating her visions, and her refusal to accept compromise – ‘I am sure you will find a way’ she told them. And find a way they did.