Thoughtful DesignA Dialogue with Margaret Howell
"That’s probably why I ended up working for myself. I think I would have found it difficult to work under someone else’s label. The elements that go into the design, whatever they are, come from my being, and what I like outside of work."
Stepping into Margaret Howell’s London flagship store on Wigmore Street is akin to entering the calm of a cathedral. The space – buttery wooden floors, soft white walls, and a cluster of skylights, which, even on a grey day, bring a brightness to the place – was collaboratively designed with architect William Russell, and became the brand’s nerve centre in 2002. Through a side door is the workshop, lively in the lead up to fashion week, and in the corner, nestled by a window and surrounded by books, sits Howell herself, sketching quietly.
Margaret Howell’s brand is a cathedral of sorts. Founded in the early 1970s, it began with Howell’s signature men’s shirts, inspired by “a beautifully made, very soft” shirt in 1920s pinstripe she found at a jumble sale. She opened her first store in association with Joseph Ettedgui on London’s South Molton Street in 1976, and upon realising women were regularly buying men’s clothes for themselves, expanded into womenswear in the early 1980s.
Today, as well as clothing, the brand offers a collection of curated accessories, books, and UK designed homewares and furniture. The term ‘lifestyle’ is applied with abandon these days, but what Howell has created is just that: a collection of pieces to live your life with, rather than pieces with a life of their own.
Renowned for her simple classics in the finest fabrics – the Ventile raincoat, the tailored Irish linen trousers, the perennial knitwear, the men’s shirt – Howell, notorious for her attention to detail, has created what she calls “a progression of clothes,” united in their functionality, beauty, timelessness, and, above all, honesty.
“I couldn’t really work without being truthful to myself, to my own style,” says Howell. Understated in a grey turtleneck, black trousers, and Nike sneakers, she speaks gently, and is – like her designs – thoughtful and self effacing.
“That’s probably why I ended up working for myself. I think I would have found it difficult to work under someone else’s label. The elements that go into the design, whatever they are, come from my being, and what I like outside of work. It is actually a lifestyle, and that’s how it’s turned into …” she smiles, and gestures around the room, “well, all this.”
Born in Surrey in 1946, Margaret Howell grew up with an affinity for nature, particularly the English countryside, and today, she splits her time between southeast London and her country home in Suffolk. As a child, she was forever making things. One of three girls, “we would make miniature gardens with furniture out of conkers, tiny theatres out of shoeboxes,” says Howell with a soft smile. “I used to love embroidery and drawing, and would exhibit my pieces at local shows to win little prizes.” She moved to London in the late 1960s, completing a fine arts degree at Goldsmiths College in 1969. During this period, Howell found that inspirational jumble sale shirt, and by 1970, she was working from home, designing and selling her own accessories. Her handmade papier-mâché beads were photographed by Vogue the same year.
London, fresh from the Swinging Sixties and a hub for innovation and creativity, got under Howell’s skin, particularly its architecture and galleries.
“London has incredible museums, galleries, and concert halls. The culture is terrific here.” She recalls hours spent as a student watching black and white Katherine Hepburn films at the National Film Theatre, now the British Film Institute, and the pleasure of rediscovering Royal Festival Hall, which she visited with her parents when she was growing up, as an adult.
But “it’s the life of the city that one really loves, and which makes its way into one’s work” she says, listing the Thames and the city’s myriad bridges in different architectural styles, the eclectic food, flower, and clothing markets, and, of course, London’s patchwork of parks as ongoing influences.
She confesses she doesn’t often draw on other people for inspiration, but in the early days, she admired the aforementioned Hepburn, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jane Birkin’s signature jeans, T shirt, and Converse. Crucially though, she drew from “women who were strong, people that used to work, and therefore would wear practical clothes and push the sleeves up and so on,” such as Amy Johnson, the pioneering British aviator, and artist Barbara Hepworth.
“There’s a sort of feeling of equality [to the clothes],” she says. “I’ve always felt that with men and women, and how men’s clothes appeal to me more because of the practicality of them. So I make women’s clothing in a similar way.”
What quality does she think her clothes possess that has made her label stand the test of time?
“Well … gosh,” she laughs.
“They’re very real clothes, with that added element of being contemporary. But I think the people that like them are the sort of people who know what they want to wear. They’re not dictated to. They’re more independent and perhaps share a similar lifestyle, or similar values in wanting something that will last rather than something that’s just a trend.”
She pauses. “I think, perhaps, they are thoughtful clothes.”