The outsider: Margaret Howell is British fashion's queen of minimalism

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The designer tells Susannah Frankel why she has never felt part of the fashion industry.

Given both her stature and longevity in the industry, Margaret Howell is remarkably media-shy. She opened a store for her MHL line, a carefully-chosen capsule collection of favourite pieces, in London's Shoreditch in autumn last year, and the Margaret Howell flagship in Paris three years ago, with barely a whisper.

You won't find Margaret Howell quoted on the burning fashion issues of the day, either: who will be designing what for who and when is of no interest to her. Instead, she says, "I suppose I'm just getting on making clothes for people to wear. That's the most important thing."

In person, the designer, who was born in Tadworth, Surrey, in 1946, appears as gentle and self-effacing as her clothes. Dressed in jeans, a striped T-shirt and indigo twill cropped jacket of her own design, her look is the epitome of well-judged understatement. In a world where over-exposure is most often the story, Margaret Howell fiercely guards the quiet and very personal authenticity of her work and the manner in which it is presented. For that reason, it is as instantly recognisable and indeed reliable to those who know and love it – and there are many discerning women, and also men, who do – as the woman behind it all might wish for.

We are sitting in the appropriately modest showroom at the back of Margaret Howell's lovely London headquarters – everything is conceived, designed and sold here. Its doors opened 10 years ago. Coffee is prepared thick and strong, just the way she likes it: "I only drink one cup a day so it has to be right".

"I think it's about an atmosphere," she says of the spacious interior that houses both men's and women's collections and also homeware and found objects including painstakingly-chosen furniture and books. All British and predominantly dating back to the mid-20th century – "Ercol, Robert Welch, Anglepoise" – the latter enhance a sense of tightly edited modernity and make up 10 to 15 per cent of overall sales.

"I am very aware that we can't compete with what is happening on the high street," Howell says, "and I think what I've always had to offer is my own taste, my own take on things. It's very personal. I understand that I am known as a British designer and I do love certain British cloths [Harris tweed, Irish linen, to name just two] so I try to give it that identity. Personally, I feel very outside of the fashion scene. I've never really related to it all that much."

Unsurprisingly, with that in mind she studied fine art at Goldsmiths College in London. "I left art school knowing I wouldn't be an artist," she says. "For an artist, everything comes from within. A designer needs something to work with. It's more of a practical approach. I was brought up to think it was important to get a job and to make your own money and I'd always made things." Howell is one of three sisters: "We all looked forward to being bought our own sewing machines aged around 18." At that point they took over where their mother left off and crafted their own clothes.

Howell's work as an artist did inform what she chose – and still chooses – to wear (and went on to design, for that matter). "Going to art school you're always in practical clothes, dashing around and getting mucky, wearing jeans, T-shirts, shirts. I always, always wore those sort of things. I do also like a mix of refinement and roughness." And flat shoes: "I wear flat shoes because I walk a lot. I did wear heels, little ones, when I was a teenager but I'm athletic. If I'm dressed up I feel too restricted. It's about a lifestyle, really." Any decoration is kept to the minimum. "With jewellery I like it to be very simple, so it's more to do with the material itself..." Howell says.

In her pragmatic and instinctive appropriation of a fundamentally masculine wardrobe, Howell was nothing if not ahead of her time. "I've never felt the need to express femininity in the archetypal feminine way," she says. "When I started out, I had razor-cut hair. I used to get on the bus and people would say: 'Is that a man or a woman?' But it was just..." She pauses for thought: "One knew what one was and that was it".

In 1970, Howell came across a finely-stitched pinstripe shirt in a jumble sale. She was already busy transforming handmade and painted papier-mâché beads into necklaces and bracelets and knitting berets and gloves. She sold them to Browns in London's South Molton Street. "And then I started making my own shirts, finished with old material and braiding, until I decided I wanted to something a little bit more permanent."

Her business as it is now began with a collection of more shirts for men and, cut smaller, for women, which the visionary buyer Joseph Ettedgui was the first to pick up on. "I think I was filling a gap, making something contemporary and current in very good quality that wasn't over-designed," Howell says. She bought fabric from traditional English manufacturers and did everything herself. "I had to bind my fingers with Elastoplast because I was cutting through several layers with scissors." In France, she came across traditional workmen's jackets and re-mastered them. Soon she expanded into trousers and then a raincoat. And so it went. In 1977, and now with her own workshop machinists and pattern cutters, she opened a menswear store in partnership with Ettedgui, housing a complete collection. In 1980, her own stand-alone womenswear boutique in London's St Christopher's Place followed.

More than 30 years on and Margaret Howell heads up a company that, by British fashion standards at least, is quite an empire. She has a womenswear designer, a menswear designer and is responsible for twice-yearly ready-to-wear collections along with the rest of them. Less conventional is the fact that her own approach, wherever possible, has remained just the same. "When I was doing it all myself, it was never about working on a collection," she says. "It was just one thing, and then another, and another. A collection is something you have to see as a whole but I was always much more keen on finding specialist suppliers of things that inspired me and then working with their product to get what I wanted."

Reach out and touch Margaret Howell's grey flannel or corduroy, her linen, cotton and cashmere, and you know that it is the care that has gone into its sourcing that makes it the finest money can buy. Invest in one of her raincoats and trust that she has studied every last detail of its form and function. There may be more to a Margaret Howell collection than there once was: that is a requirement if only for commercial reasons. Her label's heart, though, lies in the classic garments that can be worn and loved for a lifetime and that come, each season, maybe re-coloured or cut in a different weight of fabric. Wide-legged trousers, trench coats, shift dresses, circle skirts, cosy roll-necks, flat leather sandals and moccasins all bare her discreetly beautiful handwriting. It can be seen in everything from the over-riding, no-frills and perfectly-proportioned sensibility, to the impeccable finish.

It almost goes without saying that sensibility has spawned more than a few imitators – from the high street to other people's catwalks – but Howell doesn't care. "There's always been the odd copy," she says, in typically self-deprecating manner, "and of course I'm aware of them, but there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. You just get on with what you do, don't you?"

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

    £40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

    Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

    £21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

    Day In a Page

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests