Flair without fuss. Chic without chi-chi. Style without showing off. Margaret Howell, British fashion scion and understated style queen, tells Wonderland the tricks of her trade.
A grey jersey T-shirt with rolled-up sleeves. A tuxedo cut in linen. A back-buttoning granddad shirt. A raglan sleeve raincoat in proofed cotton. A pair of roomy mourning-stripe trousers. A shirtdress in pure white organdie that would look virtuous at the holiest of first communions. “They are real clothes,” says Margaret Howell of her SS/09 collection. “That’s how I work. I take these pieces and I interpret them. I don’t want it to feel over-the-top.”
It’s not a description one can imagine many people throwing her way. Howell has been a mainstay of UK fashion for the past three decades; slowly and inexorably building a reputation for beautifully simple, classic, wearable clothes. Today Howell, who graduated in fine art from Goldsmiths back in 1969, is dressed in a wrinkled Gitane-blue dress-shirt (made for her by a former member of her team), black vest, threadbare jeans and Birkenstock sandals that appear to have wandered off the beaten track, many times. While her home is in South East London, she does now spend more time in her 60s house on the Suffolk coast. “When I am not working I like to get away from everything…” she says.
This ability to meld past and present is the key to Howell’s appeal and has made her a constant fixture on stylish shopping lists over the years, regardless of the vagaries of high fashion. “I have never felt particularly comfortable in real fashion circles,” she confesses. “I know that there is a connection with fashion in what I do and I like the imagery you can play around with for a fashion show; but I want to do something very real and loved. When I like something then I like it and it doesn’t change too much.” Howell cites the dégagé elegance of Katharine Hepburn as an early influence, alongside photographs and films from the 30s. Her designs offer a lived-in familiarity. They are the kind of clothes you imagine you already own… or wish you did.
Her earliest sartorial memories are positively Proustian – the softness of her father’s shirt and a pleated chiffon dress her mother wore to go ballroom dancing. “I think that’s why some of my clothes hint at nostalgia, why people respond to them,” she continues. “There has to be something more than just a shirt. It needs a character behind it.”
“I found this man’s shirt in a jumble sale,” says Howell, explaining how she made the transition from selling painted papier-mâché beads to opening her first shop in London’s South Molton Street in 1977. “At the same jumble there was a slipover, a tie and a pair of cotton trousers and I put them on my boyfriend and thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good outfit’ and it went from there.” Fashion retailer Joseph Ettedgui (creator of Joseph) spotted Howell’s potential and bankrolled that first store. “I was supplying him with men’s shirts and then a linen jacket and then a pair of trousers and he said, ‘When you’ve made the complete men’s outfit I will open a shop for you.’” Howell’s entry into womenswear in 1980 was equally accidental. “Women were buying the men’s jackets so we did them in smaller sizes and then a skirt came along,” Howell laughs, aware of the irony presented by the naïve beginnings of a business that now has a £50 million annual turnover and 48 retail outlets in Japan alone.
This season Howell has revisited her own archive. As she takes me through the new collection, she highlights a bright blue drill overall coat that bears the stamped MHL label of her secondary line. “It’s difficult to get people to understand what MHL really is,” she says. “It’s something very basic; raw, almost. Naturally it’s a lower price point but it can’t look cheap. It’s the difference between a really good café and a really good restaurant. You like them both for what they are.” She describes MHL as “things to be worn with something at the other end of the scale. Contrasts are nice.”
MHL underscores the dichotomy in Howell’s design ethos. While her pieces offer effortless chic, they also require a bit of imagination. Does she agree that at times they are deceptively basic? “Yes, but sometimes there is quite a bit going on that you’re not really aware of,” she insists. “There are little subtle details; maybe even on the inside.”
There is an endearing pragmatism to Howell’s designs that cuts through the catwalk capers of so many designers obsessed with front-row swooning and front-page headlines. “I think most people would think it’s nice when you put something on and you know there’s something about it that you like,” she says, as she reaches for a sleeveless V-neck knit and draws my attention to a wider-than-usual ribbed armhole. “This is our take on an Argyle slipover. The shoulders sort of slip off, hang over.” She offers the garment for the touch test and tells me it’s made with a mix of cashmere and silk. “Or cashmere and cotton? Whatever it is, it feels nice and soft.” There couldn’t really be a better description for Howell’s aesthetic.
Interview over, Howell heads back to join her design team and I take a look around the shop-floor. As I am about to leave she reappears with an old newspaper advert for the original 1977 store – a sketch of a man wearing a T-shirt with rolled sleeves. She smiles. “I think the style has remained pretty constant, don’t you?”
Photograpy: John Lindquist
Fashion: Lauren Blane
Words: Iain R. Webb