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
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
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

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine