Jun 9, 2022
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Influential British designer John Bates dies

Jun 9, 2022

John Bates, the designer credited with inventing the mini skirt and creating the archetypal 1960s style, has died. He’s survived by his partner John Siggins.

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Bates, whose label Jean Varon was one of the most influential British brands in the 60s and 70s, dressed celebrities, royalty and the woman in the street and helped to transform fashion in the process.

In the 60s, he claimed to have been the originator of the miniskirt (rather than Mary Quant or André Courrèges who are more frequently credited with its creation). And he influenced the way women dressed during that decade, both through his general collections and the modernist clothes he designed for Diana Ring in her unforgettable first series as Emma peel in The Avengers.

His use of modern shapes and materials with ultra-simple silhouettes summed up the decade. But his work morphed into the 70s and summed up that decade too with its more ethereal, dreamy, retro-influenced style.

Jean Varon’s highly detailed and colourful maxi dresses were as much in demand as his minidresses were and both the 60s and 70s looks he created fetch high prices among vintage fashion collectors.

Unlike some designers, his work can still be seen regularly by anyone watching re-runs of The Avengers, of 1970s sitcom The Good Life, or Maggie Smith in 1978 movie California Suite. 

Bates was born into a mining family in Northern England in the 1930s and after moving to London and being unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, he eventually decided to make a career in fashion and was taken on by Chelsea couturier Herbert Sidon.

After a few false starts, he gained backers for his own label that he launched in 1959 under the name Jean Varon.

Targeting ordinary young women, his work was noted for its colour and simplicity — as well as its shorter hemlines that didn’t go down well with many buyers. However, Wallis bought the collection and it made a major impact so he ended up with his own line for the retailer, as well as concessions in luxury department stores Harrods and Harvey Nichols.

His designs for Diana Ring in 1965 made him an international sensation and led to an Avengers-inspired collection. He was also honoured with one of his designs being chosen as the dress of the year by the Fashion Museum, Bath in the same year.

As the decade progressed, his skirts got short and shorter while his business expanded with a higher-end John Bates label and other collections. As mentioned, his style developed in the 70s in a direction that was the polar opposite of his 60s styles.

But the success didn’t last. UK fashion firms had it tough navigating the weak economy of the late 70s and early 80s and the business failed. 

Never fond of the limelight, Bates exited fashion and later retired to Wales to paint.

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