A Chelsea Girl never really goes out of fashion does she?
Rebecca Weef Smith meets Heather Tilbury the former marketing director of MARY QUANT and the woman responsible for the current Quant retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Heather Tilbury leaves in an idyllic rural setting with sheep grazing in her front field; it’s a long way from the Swinging Sixties and Chelsea, where she played a pivotal role in the expansion of the quintessential cool London label Quant.
The day I meet Heather she is wearing a dress made from an original Quant design and she has Mary’s sketch of it on her wall. The sketch is called ‘Heather’. Heather shows me her collection of Quant sketches and we discuss the clothes we had which disappeared over the years. I notice Heather’s Daisy necklace and we begin by discussing the Daisy logo that was so prolific in building the Quant Brand. That distinctive design stemmed from the doodles that Mary covered everything with; “she would do a flower shape that just became known to symbolise the brand instantly, clear and strong and sharp. Universal, which was needed as the brand was global. It still looks good today.”
For almost three decades Heather Tilbury ran her own London based communications consultancy specialising in handling accounts in the arts, fashion, retail, textiles, mail order and general consumer fields. As a director of Mary Quant Limited in the 1970’s Heather was heavily involved in Mary Quant’s London exhibition at The London Museum, Kensington Palace from November 1973 to June 1974. She was appointed as Advisor to the V & A on the Quant exhibition and book celebrating the achievements of Mary Quant which opened to the public on 6 April 2019 and continues until 16 February 2020.
Heather has spent the last four and a half years talking about and researching Mary Qaunt. I ask her what has driven this project of love she explains the gratitude she feels towards Mary, “I have been extremely fortunate in my life and career, I am certain that without Mary I wouldn’t
have had the chances I had. I owe a lot to her and I wanted to be able to put her story straight. Mary has always been quite shy; she was never one to push herself forward or court publicity.”
Heather initially approached Jenny Lister at the Victoria and Albert museum with the idea of a book celebrating the Mary Quant brand but it soon became apparent that a full scale exhibition would be an appropriate way to share the achievements of this innovative woman and her legacy.
In her quest to track down Quant stories Heather has reconnected with colleagues and models from 40 years ago and it seems that everyone has loving memories of Mary as a person and the label which became synonymous with London in the swinging sixties however Mary opened her first shop in Chelsea in 1955 and the exhibition will feature Quant collaborations from the 1970s with manufacturers such as Kangol hats where Heather first met Mary. Heather was working at Kangol on publicity including that for Quant berets. Before long Mary invited her to join them in Ives Street, the Quant office base in Chelsea. Heather has found memories of office life in Ives Street “it was a smaller organisation than I has expected, like a big family. It wasn’t always calm, there were frustrations, but there was a feeling of support. My office interconnected with Alexander’s and Mary’s, there was always interaction going on all the time. Mary would wander in and ask for one’s opinion. We were all bouncing ideas of each other. Mary wanted everyone to feel included. Ultimately she made her own decisions but it was a great way to develop others confidence.”
It set a great example to the rest of us in the office “It was such an exciting time. Golly was it fun. Alexander was super, there was always a glass of wine, he was so calm, and could always make us laugh if it got too stressful. He was a great one for naming new lines, a marketing gift, Cry Baby for waterproof mascara – what a gem!”
The cosmetic had been launched in 1965 – before Heathers time – but the company continued to innovate and shake up the market all thorough the seventies to this day you can still purchase Quant cosmetics from the shop in Chelsea. Mary had wanted to create a make-up range which matched the ethos of the clothes, bright, modern, and carefree. She had strong ideas about the colours and textures that she wanted and when she was told it wasn’t possible would say she was sure a way could be found. Mary didn’t want to accept a compromise and it was that probing which encouraged the manufactures to be more innovative.”
It was Mary’s attention to detail which revolutionised the high street and took her from a tiny boutique on the King’s Road into a wholesale label available in department stores across the UK and into the USA, where her designs were made for chain stores and mail order companies. Quant became fashion which captured the spirit of a whole generation and the V & A exhibition is anticipated to bring back memories of that generation as well as introducing a younger generation to the brand.
With the success of the Quant exhibition and accompanying book it is unlikely that Heather will be spending much time with the sheep in the future.