“She Was a Spark of Energy”: Sadie Frost on Her New Mary Quant Documentary

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Courtesy of Studio Soho

The actor, producer and director discusses her feature-length debut, Quant – a lovingly-made tribute to the trailblazing British designer

There’s a photograph of Mary Quant in her student days that appears in Sadie Frost’s new documentary about the trailblazing British fashion designer. In it, the young Quant is on a parade float surrounded by balloons, her face lit up with a mischievous smile. It’s one of Frost’s favourites. “You saw right there that she was a real spark of energy,” says the actor, producer and director, who makes her feature-length debut with Quant – a labour of love and a tribute to the 91-year-old designer’s enduring influence. Layering archive imagery with dramatic segments acted by Camilla Rutherford, as well as commentary from a mix of Quant’s close confidantes, Frost paints a vivid picture of a brilliant woman battling an older, more restrictive world.

Few women are as emblematic of 60s fashion as Mary Quant. With her Vidal Sassoon bob, Peter Pan collars and mini-skirt-clad legs, the Goldsmiths graduate revolutionised women’s clothing, freeing girls from the fussy getups of the 50s. Quant’s fresh, effervescent style was inspired by her own wardrobe as a child; all short skirts, low-heeled shoes and tights. A Mary Quant outfit was one a girl could run for the bus in. Though there is some dispute about who invented the miniskirt (Quant or Courrèges?), it was the marketing-savvy Brit who coined the word, after the Mini Cooper.

Frost felt an affinity with Quant and the 60s style she could trace back to her childhood, when her own fashion-forward mother dressed her and her sister in typical looks of the decade. “It must have been in my headlights subliminally,” says Frost, who was initially approached by the production company Goldfinch Entertainment to make the film. “When I was about 15, I started wearing all the Mary Quant stripy tights and I cut my hair into a bob, so I must have been kind of modelling myself on her.”

A successful businesswoman and mother in addition to agenda-setting designer, Quant built a brand that survived decades, creating makeup as well as clothing. Frost’s own experience with Frost French, the cult label she co-founded with childhood friend Jemima French in 1999, gave her a special insight into the nuts and bolts of being a fashion designer. “I saw how hard it is to license and to work with investors,” she says. It was Quant’s resilience, and her quiet demeanour, that made her such an attractive subject for a documentary. 

“She was in some ways a machine in the world of fashion, to do all these things and collections,” says Frost. “But then she had such a human story, with her being such a tender mother.” Among the commentators in the film – which range from the Kinks’ Dave Davies to Pattie Boyd – is Quant’s son Orlando, from her marriage to sweetheart and impresario Alexander Plunket Greene. He provides many of the personal touches to the story, while marquee names provide context and depth to Mary’s achievements. “I knew [Kate Moss] could comment on supermodels in the 60s and female sexuality, Charlotte [Tilbury] on licensing and women in business, and Pete Townshend on how exciting it was to be on the Kings Road in the 60s,” Frost says.

Well ahead of her time, Quant revolutionised not just fashion but the way it was presented, producing joyous catwalk shows that were more like parties than showcases. She was also one of the first designers to put clothes on Black models. An ongoing inspiration, Quant’s influence can be felt in the work of a host of younger designers. “What’s so interesting is that she’s so softly spoken and so unreactive,” says Frost of the demure-seeming Quant. “When she wanted to get her own way she didn't react and scream and shout, she just calmly, quietly said ‘no’ … I think we can all learn from her.”

Famously camera-shy and now in her 90s, Quant does not appear in the film. But though she is not in front of the camera, the entire feature is a love letter to her personality and accomplishments. As for whether she has seen the film, Frost has heard that she has, and given it her blessing – the ultimate seal of approval. 

Quant is released in the UK on October 29