Fashion: the classics mistress

Since the Seventies, the name Margaret Howell has stood for a very English kind of elegance. Tamsin Blanchard meets the designer that grown-up women like to wear
Margaret Howell knows a secret: how to make clothes that look like they've been with you for a lifetime. Put on one of Howell's outfits and you'll look like a a woman with a life to lead, not a contrived fashion plate; her clothes become instant old friends. She has perfected the art of nonchalant, unselfconscious but stylish dressing: the crumpled linen jacket, the herringbone-knit jumper, the ageless, timeless white shirt. The French call it je ne sais quoi. But it is a style of dressing that suits British men and women in general - and Margaret Howell in particular.

"Basically, you design for yourself," she admits. "I don't de-sign for a particular market. I design things I like." And what Howell likes are uncluttered, minimal clothes, which conjure images of Katharine Hepburn in her classic wide slacks and silk shirt with a polka-dot scarf tied at her neck. "My style is a mixture of the aesthetic and the practical," she says.

Despite being a relatively small, classic label, Howell has built up a strong image over the 26 years she has been in business. She doesn't have the budget for epic advertising campaigns, but has an eye for photographers who understand her style philosophy. In the Eighties, she found a certain synergy with Bruce Weber when he photographed her clothes both for Vogue and for her own publicity shots. Now her company is sponsoring his latest exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Weber and Howell both take a relaxed view of the world they work in. Just as the pictures he took for her were candid portraits, rather than posed fashion shots that created new looks just for the sake of it, her preference has always been for "something that improves as it ages". In a world which wants everyone to change their entire wardrobe every season, that's a refreshing stance for a designer to take.

Howell, who trained not as a fashion designer but as a fine artist at Goldsmiths, has had plenty of time to develop her style, and perfect her use of fabric and cut. In the Seventies, she made men's shirts for Ralph Lauren. (You can't help thinking that if she were based in America, Margaret Howell's all-English, wide-appeal style would make her just as big a name as her old employer.) But it was during the Eighties that she really developed her natural, unfussy look. "To accept that linen gets crumpled and creased, and to make unstructured clothes was new at the time," she says.

Over the last decade, her business has been expanding slowly and steadily, with Japan her biggest market. Howell now has over 30 retail outlets worldwide. But, as she readily admits, she is not the latest thing on the catwalk, and does not share in the razzmatazz glory of London Fashion Week like the new breed of young designers. Instead, at 51, Howell is of the generation of women designers that includes Jil Sander, Donna Karan and Miuccia Prada. As with their clothes, hers too are expensive - but then you are paying for the time and loving care Howell has spent researching the best fabrics, working closely with factories (all her clothes are made in the UK), and ensur- ing that every detail of every piece of clothing bearing her name is as perfect as possible. You won't get a whole lot of fashion for your money, but you can rest stylishly assured that anything you buy from Margaret Howell will stand the test of time.