Actor Sadie Frost turns director with Quant, an engaging documentary about the British fashion designer Mary Quant, showing at the London Film Festival. Known for her bold, vibrant designs and pioneering spirit, Quant became associated with the liberating fashions of the 1960s, ditching the style of the fitted ’50s and raising eyebrows along with hemlines.
Frost’s lively doc traces her journey with archive footage, talking heads and dramatized scenes featuring actor Camilla Rutherford as Quant. The latter touch is perhaps the biggest challenge, but is handled elegantly: rather than shooting Rutherford as if she is in a straight TV interview, Frost and DP John Bretherton approach these brief segments almost like a fashion shoot, zooming in on her eyes or gestures, the dialogue not always in sync.
Given that Quant is now 91, it is unsurprising that she doesn’t take part directly, but versions of her words are used over archive photography and footage to a punchy soundtrack including The Kinks, Manfred Mann and Florence + The Machine. Frost also employs inventive visuals for audio-only interviewees, who include model Kate Moss and The Who’s Pete Townshend.
Part fashion doc and part character portrait, Quant offers some insight into the personality of the designer, which in turn informed her work. After a happy and relatively carefree childhood, she yearned for the freedom of her youth and felt confined by the adult clothing of the time. She also had an innate sense of what suited her own face shape, and an understanding of the burgeoning youth culture that was keen to shed the stuffiness of the past. Such culture was particularly prevalent at Goldsmiths College, where she studied.
Quant also had a romance that would be key to her career: Alexander Plunket Greene, her future husband who invested in a boutique for her designs in London’s Kings Road. Contributors have plenty to say about their relationship, which gives the film an accessible, sometimes playful touch. There’s also an emphasis on women’s liberation, and an argument that more relaxed fashions played a part in that — only slightly undermined by The Kinks’ Dave Davies theorizing that the mini skirt was designed by a guy for dubious reasons.
Some talking heads contribute more than others; interesting insights into fashion history come from the likes of designers Zandra Rhodes and Jasper Conran. While iconic designer Vivienne Westwood is interviewed as advertised, it’s only briefly; she’s filmed commenting on “fast fashion” at an outdoor protest — apparently only willing to give interviews based on her activism. This feels a little at odds with the rest of the film, but it forms part of a heartfelt postscript. Frost’s passion for her subject shines through, and having co-created the label Frost French, she feels well placed to tell the story of an extraordinary fashion icon.
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