THE original plan, Heather Tilbury Phillips says, was to go travelling for six months. It was the end of the 1960s and she wanted to see Europe – the art, the architecture and, yes, maybe the beaches. But before she went Tilbury Phillips just happened to mention her plans to a certain Mary Quant, clothes designer, London face and at the time one of the most famous women in Britain.

“Mary said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to come and work for us?’” Tilbury Phillips recalls. “And I said, ‘But I’m going away for six months.’

“She said, ‘Oh, we couldn’t wait that long. We will wait for a month.’

“Well, honestly, Teddy, how could you turn down an opportunity like that?”

How indeed? There are few names that conjure up the youthquake that was the 1960s in the UK as readily as Dame Mary Quant’s. With her geometric blunt-cut bob, Quant, who sadly passed away in April at the age of 93, is a signifier for the very idea of “swinging London”.

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The creator of hot pants and populariser of short, short skirts, Quant reinvented how women looked in that decade. She also reimagined cosmetics and then diversified into interior decoration in the 1970s.

The title of the touring V&A exhibition, which opens at Kelvingrove in Glasgow today, sums her up rather well: “Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary.”

And Tilbury Phillips experienced that revolution firsthand. She spent the best part of 15 years working for Quant.

“My official title was Global Marketing and Communication Director of Mary Quant Limited,” she tells me.

In 1970 she chose Chelsea over six months sur le continent (although she did manage one, travelling by buses and trains; “never hitching,” she says). Tilbury Phillips arrived at Quant’s HQ in Ives Street to take up a post working with Quant’s husband, Alexander Plunkett-Greene, an entrepreneur who came from old money (his family were said to be the inspiration for the Flyte family in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited).

HeraldScotland: Dame Mary’s communications director shares the inside story of life in the world’s hottest fashion houseDame Mary’s communications director shares the inside story of life in the world’s hottest fashion house (Image: free)

“He had this gift for projecting Mary’s genius,” Tilbury Phillips believes.

“I worked with Alexander on the marketing and promotional side. I would be responsible for the cohesive Mary Quant brand promotion. Sounds terribly grand,” she says, smiling.

“I went to Ives Street, early 1970, and realised it was the most wonderfully exciting, stimulating, challenging place to be.

“Mary was so inspirational and she had confidence in her team, which gave us a wonderfully empowering opportunity to go out there and represent her.”

These days Tilbury Phillips is 80 years young and still full of vim, vigour and an enviable lust for life. She lives in a 15th-century house near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk which she and her late husband bought in near-derelict condition back in 1980.

Tilbury Phillips has lived a full and storied life, but those days working with Quant remain vivid in her memory. Mostly because that time in her life sounded huge fun.

Messy fun, at times, admittedly. “Totally chaotic,” she agrees. “You’d go into the office in the morning thinking you knew exactly what you were doing for the day. One phone call and it would all be different.

“One day we’d be putting on a fashion show at the Savoy hotel in the middle of winter and the girls would be wearing spring-summer garments, so they’d be freezing and I’d be wrapping them in blankets and coats to ensure they were all right.”

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Tilbury Phillips was born outside London and grew up in Jersey with the idea of becoming a dancer. Her parents weren’t having it, though.

“It was frowned upon in the family. ‘No, you’re bloody well going to secretarial college.’”

She got a job working on marketing and publicity for the headwear company Kangol, through which she met Quant, Plunkett-Greene and lawyer and Mary Quant co-founder Archie McNair.

In 1955 the trio had opened Bazaar in the King’s Road, selling Quant’s clothes at street level with a bistro downstairs. The legend of Mary Quant begins here.

“Bazaar became an essential destination, with young girls popping in several times daily to see what had been set out for sale,” Shawn Levy writes in Ready, Steady, Go, his 2002 account of swinging London.

Tilbury Phillips was one of those girls. “Oh, yes. I couldn’t always afford everything. One of the things Mary did that was so inspirational was she granted Butterick Sewing Patterns a licence.

“My lovely aunt who brought me up was a very gifted seamstress and she taught me – and of course we learned at school in those days – to sew.

“So, I used to be able to make her garments. Not very professionally.

“And then when I went to Kangol and I was earning a bit more money, and I got to know Mary and Alexander, I used to be invited to the sample sales, which was a huge treat as you can imagine.

“And I was fortunate because, although I wasn’t entirely model-sized, I wasn’t so very different and could get into those lovely frocks and stylish outfits that people like Jean Shrimpton wore. So it was an exciting time.”

Who was the woman behind the clothes though? Who was the Mary Quant that Tilbury Phillips knew?

“She had a huge sense of fun and a wonderful sense of humour,” Tilbury Phillips answers. “She treated everybody equally.

“Her attention to detail was remarkable and she had an inner work ethic that meant she wanted everything to be right.

“So, yes, of course there were moments when you were walking on eggshells because something had happened with which she didn’t agree or somebody had done – or not done – something.

“But she really was remarkable in that she understood that not everybody is perfect.

“And she remembered to say thank you.”

She was also, Tilbury Phillips explains, “incredibly shy”. This was, she adds, something of a dichotomy given that Quant was also a veritable quote machine, always ready with a smart, provocative bon mot.

When asked to give her definition of a stylish woman, Quant suggested: “She is sexy, witty and dry-cleaned.”

As Tilbury Phillips points out: “Every single statement she made was what we would call a soundbite. Some of the things she would say were controversial and stimulating to get the journalist to appreciate just how determined she was.”

She knew her own value then? “Absolutely.”

She cites her move into cosmetics as an example of Quant’s determination to pull the world into the shape she required.

“She wanted mascara and she called it ‘Crybaby’ because she wanted it to be waterproof. And that’s a perfect example. The cosmetics company said, ‘Don’t know if we’ll be able to do that.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’m sure you will.’”

Quant was proved right and her cosmetics line became hugely successful. “Even going back to the mini skirt …” Tilbury Phillips continues, “the mini skirt couldn’t have gone on getting shorter and shorter unless she had persuaded the hosiery manufacturers to produce tights that made it respectable.

“But the tights would clash or contrast or they would actually match the colours in her collections, so they would become a feature.

“And she would always say Chelsea girls had the best legs.”

Who were Mary Quant’s customers? “The remarkable thing was – duchesses, typists, shopgirls, mums, teenagers,” Tilbury Phillips says. And that was the key to Quant’s success. She reinvented what women wore by first appealing to affluent young women in Chelsea and then spreading her influence through launching a mass-market brand under the name Ginger Group, which was sold worldwide, including in Glasgow’s House of Fraser.

And the appeal of her clothes remains alive today. Tilbury Phillips advised the V&A on the Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary exhibition and while it was on show at the V&A in London, she sometimes listened in on the other visitors.

“People of my age would be saying, ‘I remember that. I wore something just like that when I met my husband.’

“And then a 16-year-old would say, ‘Oh, I want to wear that.’

“It crosses barriers, it crosses age groups.

“That look still has such appeal.”


Even though she had a design team, Mary Quant always wanted to

visit textile and fabric manufacturers herself, Heather Tilbury Phillips

explains. Especially when she visited Scotland.

“She and I went up to Scotland if we were putting on fashion shows

with the Ginger Group in Jenners in Edinburgh, for argument s sake, and

we would combine it with going to the Borders and seeing knitwear and

cashmere. We went to Harris Tweed and saw it being woven and she

would talk to them about colour combinations. Or go to Paisley and

look at the wonderful Paisley designs.

“She loved the countryside, the wonderful colours, the heathery

textures of the woollens.

“She loved Scotland and she would be thrilled that the exhibition is

coming to Kelvingrove.

Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary opens at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, in Glasgow, today and runs until October 22. Visit for more information and to book tickets