Her clothes changed the lives of women in the Sixties; her makeup breathed new life into a world where lipstick came in three shades of pink, and eye shadow was either blue or green.

After Mary Quant's signature Sassoon bob and miniskirts arrived on the scene, Britain's haircuts and hemlines were never the same again – all of which is chronicled in a new exhibition, which opens today, at the V&A. Laying out in glorious detail the designer's remarkable output and influence, its launch on Wednesday night saw the great and the good of the fashion and design worlds in attendance, along with women who had modeled for Quant, and many who had simply been devoted fans. But there was one notable absence: Quant herself. At 89 (and said, sadly, not to be in the best health) it's perhaps no surprise the legendary designer didn't make it to the launch of her eponymous exhibition. She hasn't been seen in fashion circles for many years. But then, those who know her well say she was never really one for the social whirl.

Some of the designs by Mary Quant, showcased in London in 1967. Photo / Getty Images
Some of the designs by Mary Quant, showcased in London in 1967. Photo / Getty Images

She was always a shy and retiring figure, more comfortable at intimate gatherings with close friends than industry parties. She has given very few interviews and was never one for the gossip columns – even in her heyday, when the hard-working daughter of Welsh grammar school teachers married Alexander Plunket-Greene, the well-connected aristo who went on to become her business partner. He was, in her words, "a great wit and dish", the life and soul of every party, while she remained the quiet visionary. Since his death in 1990, she seems to have retreated ever more from public life.

But the limelight never interested her; indeed her great friend Shirley Conran notes she always struggled with a desire to hide away. "Suddenly, Mary was international and she didn't care for it," Conran recalls of her rise to fame. "She was very shy, painfully shy."

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"As a creative person she was like a force to be reckoned with but she wasn't in your face," recalls Joy Debenham Burton, who worked with Quant for years. "For someone so dynamic, she is incredibly gentle."

Quant went to psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Gould to help boost her confidence. "To be a woman in the Fifties was not fun," Conran explains, "and you could very easily be crushed. But Dr Gould made you build yourself strong."

She remembers that Quant was always "astonished" by her success, and overwhelmed by the burden of notoriety. "We never particularly thought we were amazing," says Conran, who still sees Quant and her son Orlando regularly, of their Sixties art school cohort.

That total disdain for self promotion is something anyone who has known and worked with Quant over the years refers to. Brenda Polan, the prolific fashion writer and academic, says she has always been fundamentally unshowy. "She didn't push herself forward and make big statements, but in conversation she was a very astute woman and quite witty.

Mary Quant presenting her VIVA VIVA line worn by models surrounding her. Photo / Getty Images
Mary Quant presenting her VIVA VIVA line worn by models surrounding her. Photo / Getty Images

"[It was] partly about being a Welsh girl from the valleys. It's partly also the fact that she was slightly intimidated by her husband's background. There was that whole class thing. There was a modesty."

Quant, friends tell me, will be 90 next February, but even her age has been shrouded in mystery as she lied about it for most of her life: "in those days she was very conscious about it," Conran says. But though she may be approaching a milestone, she still looks as sharp as ever. "Mary's hair is still red" – someone from Vidal Sassoon sees to that – "but she's still very snappily dressed.

"She can't move well, and she likes getting presents and opening them. Her visual sense is just as sharp as it ever was, so I have to be very careful about what I order and how it's wrapped."

One friend recalls a lunch in the Dordogne a few years ago during which she never removed dark sunglasses, and wore her signature breton top and flowing white trousers: all her own design, all worn almost every day. Clothes should, she has always said, be as comfortable and confidence-boosting as a pair of "old jeans" – "even if it's evening dress and terribly formal," she once remarked.

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A child evacuee who became a shining light in the capital after the War, Quant was, by all accounts, at her happiest when dressing windows for her Chelsea shop Bazaar (which fellow artist friends would come and watch her do every Friday evening after piling out of the Arethusa Club at 11pm), or having a quiet supper with friends.

The last time Brenda Polan saw her, ten years ago, at a conference at the London College of Fashion, she was "very Mary. She came in at the back, sat, did what she was there to do and left. But she was quite advanced in years. She was not robust. She was a tiny little figure.

"I think she was underappreciated. She got left behind, a whole lot of her generation got forgotten about a bit." Losing control of her business was "terribly upsetting," Polan says, "but she was very active behind the scenes of the industry promoting other people. She was always a good soldier and very much on the side of the angels in making sure other people's work got seen." And now, we will get to appreciate hers again, too.