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?"

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

    Junior Database developer (SQL, T-SQL, Excel, SSRS)

    £20000 - £30000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Junior D...

    Helpdesk Team Leader / Manager

    £45000 per annum + pension,medical: Ashdown Group: A successful & reputable gl...

    IT Systems Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition
    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?