Alongside the Beatles, fashion designer Mary Quant was one of the pioneers of the 1960s “British invasion,” which saw the world go nuts for U.K. cultural exports including the mini-skirt, which Quant is credited with inventing.
And yet, “There’s still a lot of people that don’t know who she is,” said Sadie Frost, the director of a new documentary, “Quant,” about the fashion icon. “So for me, it was just such a important story to tell.” The film, which was produced by Goldfinch Entertainment and distributed by Studio Soho Distribution, premieres at the BFI London Film Festival on Saturday.
Despite three decades in the film industry, both as an actor (she is perhaps best known for her turn in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula,” alongside Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder and Anthony Hopkins) and a producer, with her production company Blonde to Black Pictures, “Quant” is Frost’s first foray into directing. “I have a fashion background and I have a film background and I’m a woman and I know a lot of Mary’s peers and I know a lot of contemporary people in fashion,” Frost said about how she boarded the project.
Frost also brings a unique perspective to the narrative: like Quant, she has navigated her way through media maelstroms, having weathered a public divorce from fellow actor Jude Law, with whom she has three children, and occasionally cropped up in the tabloids, sometimes alongside close friend Kate Moss.
Her own experiences with the media, Frost says, meant she approached the story of Quant’s life with sensitivity. “For me, who’s kind of been high profile in some points of my life and in the public eye […] it was very important to make everyone confident that I was not going to sensationalize anything, or make something that was going to be exploiting Mary.”
Now 92, Quant is still alive but wasn’t interviewed for the documentary, although whether that was because of COVID restrictions or because the designer is notoriously media shy isn’t clear. Quant’s son, Orlando, does appear in the film, which was made with his blessing.
The documentary, which went into production in January 2020, was impacted by the pandemic. “We lost a lot of our older interviewees in the end because of COVID,” Frost says. “I was like, I’m never going to be able to ever get that dream line-up ever again. And I just thought at that point there’s no way this film can ever be finished.”
“There’s been so many tears on the way because I just had such a vision for it, so I just fought and fought,” she said. Every time the lockdown restrictions lifted, “I’d have to rush over to see somebody with a microphone.”
Still, Frost secured plenty of insider-y voices for the doc, including Moss, British Vogue editor Edward Enninful and Derry Curry, who worked with Quant. She also tapped actor Camilla Rutherford (“Phantom Thread”) to play the designer in a series of vignettes peppered throughout the film. “I wanted it to have a kind of style and a sense of humor,” Frost explains. “I was trying to imagine, if this was a feature film, ‘What would it be?’ and I was just thinking of a kind of ‘Amelie’ type of femininity and coquettishness.”
In the doc, Frost also focuses on Quant’s feminism (“I liked my skirts short because I wanted to run and catch the bus to get to work,” the designer memorably once said.) “What Mary did for women [in the 1960s] liberated them, gave them a voice,” says Frost. Given her own experiences in the entertainment industry, it’s a subject close to her heart and one that attracted her to the project, which was produced, edited and obviously directed by women.
Frost says she was often the lone woman in the room, even at her own companies (she briefly ran a production company, Natural Nylon, with Law, Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller). “I was always in a very male [environment], I always felt quite out of place and not supported.”
“And then obviously, the acting roles [for women] – you play to stereotypes. I was always the femme fatale and then then there’s a gap then you play the mother, and then you play the older mother, and now I’m playing the old bat,” she says. “It was always a huge injustice. And the kind of things women had to do for castings. Like if you’re a woman and you were playing a sexy role, you had to go and kind of dress up sexy, or do a photoshoot that was, you know, made you look a certain way, which, I think looking back at that now, that was completely wrong.”
Some of those themes will emerge in a screenplay Frost is writing, which she also plans to direct. “It’s inspired by some events that happened in my life,” she says. “It’s quite dark and it is about a woman getting revenge on a man, so it’s a bit of a thriller.”
With her four children now having graduated from school (two have followed her and Law into the film industry: Iris Law is appearing in Danny Boyle’s upcoming FX series “Pistol” and Rafferty Law in Steven Spielberg’s “Masters of the Air” for Apple) Frost now has the time and space to focus on her own projects. As well as the screenplay, she has a role in “The Chelsea Cowboy” alongside Alex Pettyfer and Poppy Delevingne, which started shooting this week, is producing four films and developing more feature documentary ideas which she hopes to direct.
“When people say, ‘How can you do three or four different things at the same time?’ I say, ‘Well, you know, I had four of the biggest projects going at the same time,” says Frost. “And that was raising four children [while] being a single mom.”