“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
The quote—inaccurately attributed to both Leonardo da Vinci and Coco Chanel—describes Margaret Howell’s quiet luxuries very nicely. Howell reminds one of an English character in a Henry James novel: a deeply refined sensibility of great influence and means disguised in elegantly modest packaging. Did you know that behind the graciously self-effacing Ms Howell there looms an international fashion empire, built upon exquisite attention to the finer details of British sartorial heritage—one that quietly generates £100 million per year? Probably not. Ms Howell is no showboat. Her collections are season-less meditations on one ever-evolving aesthetic— one that has seduced her customers with its chic pragmatism and hushed sumptuousness. Her MHL line explores an intriguingly handsome re-appropriation of British workwear while her MARGARET HOWELL mainline channels her discreet tastes into high fashion. She was kind enough to sit down for a chat with Dapper Dan.
MATTHEW HICKS: Let’s start with a question about misconceptions: what are things that you read about yourself in the press that you think are false or distorted?
MARGARET HOWELL: Possibly, a long time ago, the press seemed to think that I was a classic, sort of country designer and sometimes one would feature me in rather retro-looking articles. But I’m designing clothes for today. I do love our heritage fabrics, like Harris tweed, and obviously I use colours I think will be wearable in urban situations.
HICKS: When I was researching this piece I found a headline in a major daily paper that called you the “Queen of Minimalism.” What do you think of that? Minimalist is not a term I would have applied to Margaret Howell.
HOWELL: I remember a period when Jil Sander started as a “minimalist.” Maybe Jean Muir was regarded as a “minimalist.” It’s not exactly either. I think it’s just that I suppose I don’t accessorise a lot. And I suppose one’s become slightly more pared down. Because when one starts as a designer, one puts a lot more detail into clothing. It’s a hard one, that question. I can see that my clothes have become less detailed—with pockets and various other things. But we do MHL whose character is more workwear-inspired with a lot of details on those clothes. It depends on what I’m after. Very often clothes that I really like are driven by finding a fabric that somehow inspires what I will make from it, or a fabric that will give a classic item a twist or a different freshness.
HICKS: Some of the other terms that came up repeatedly in descriptions of your work I wrote down as follows: “understatement,” “classic,” “low-key,” “outsider,” “modest,” “cult” and “lifestyle”—the last of which always puzzles me. Does Margaret Howell think of herself in these terms?
HOWELL: I do think that lifestyle, actually, does drive part of the design. When I used to design everything myself I used to sit down and think, “What do I want to wear?” It’s my natural style to wear trousers and flat shoes. Basically, I adapt men’s clothes to women. I’m not so hot on doing dresses and things like that. So my womenswear is really clothes for an independent working woman, as I see her.
HICKS: Margaret Howell shops are very numerous in Japan and rather few in Europe. Why is that and how involved are you in retail design and strategy?
HOWELL: I’m not a natural salesperson. I’m a designer. I get very involved in the shop here [London] because, well, I work here. And it’s like a creative hub: I can put things in the shop that go beyond the clothes. So I’m very involved in the London shop but not in a commercial way.
HICKS: You talk a lot about keeping very strong editorial control over the business. You don’t seem to want to become a “diffusion” line. What does that mean for the future of the brand?
HOWELL: I do understand that businesses have to expand. We do expand slowly in Europe, but in Japan, one has a pretty big company. I’m not against expansion; I am against rapid expansion and a watering-down.
HICKS: Can you tell me a little about your relationship with Japan? I read that your celebrity— low-key as it may be—has reached a point that you have been recently stopped and asked for a picture. Knowing how discreet you are, I can only imagine how you recoiled from the invitation.
HOWELL: If I happen to walk into the [London] shop and there are some Japanese customers, I get that request. To which I simply reply that I don’t do that. I really don’t like that.
HICKS: How do you account for the Japanese fascination for the brand? You have around 80 shops there, right?
HOWELL: Maybe more. I think it must be just the quality and perhaps a certain Britishness that came across when it started out there, which was in the early 80s, I think. And maybe it has to do with the edited choice as well. Even here, I think people responded to the quality of the fabrics used.
HICKS: How do you go about sourcing fabrics?
HOWELL: Going to the fairs. And, obviously, we’ve built up quite a group of people whom we work with fairly consistently. We’re always looking for something new and fresh. Sometimes we can develop—through suggestions—new fabrics with companies we work with. But really, I personally work best by searching through thousands of swatches of fabrics and then just responding to something. And I’ve got fabrics that I really like and can always find some way to use; things our customers also seem to like, such as the English corduroys, tweeds and flannels.
HICKS: You work with two designers. Can you tell me what your process is with them?
HOWELL: Three actually. A girl and boy work on MHL—the boy also does the menswear for the mainline, and a girl who does the mainline women. As a team, we all work very well together. I sort of oversee them and we choose fabrics together. We go to the fairs together. And I have regular meetings with them.
HICKS: You have a holiday home that is—by all available accounts—a work of art. Can you tell me about it?
HOWELL: It’s very modest but it’s rather unusual in that it was designed by a Swiss architect [Rudy Mock] in the early 1960s and it’s on a lane that leads a half-mile down to the sea. It’s in this very rural and yet real landscape—it’s arable and working— and so you get tractors going by and muddy roads and things. It’s very unusual to have this group—essentially a terrace of six houses. And he specifically built it for himself and his friends in London as holiday homes. But for me it’s just lovely: it has the big windows and light but it’s small and manageable and very close to the sea. The whole area seems to attract like-minded people who like that flat landscape of East Anglia: the big skies and the broadness of it all, really.
HICKS: Is there an aesthetic that you appreciate from a distance? One that you admire but don’t exactly feel comfortable in. For example, if you were to come to my house, it is decorated like a mid-century luxury hotel in reduced circumstances. I like a style rich in imperfections. But I also adore, say, Italian High Minimalism. Though when I’m in those interiors I feel just like a cat with sticky tape on my paws. Is there something that you have an appreciation for that would surprise us?
HOWELL: I think I feel that way about architectural minimalism. As first it’s sort of admirable and refreshing and there’s a great calmness to the place. But I couldn’t live like that. I like a mix of styles. I don’t think I could go somewhere and have it all just “done.” That’s how you build a style.
HICKS: Today you run an enormous international company but you started off as a fine arts school graduate from Goldsmiths College, University of London. How are graduates from design/arts/ fashion schools changing? How are they different from when you started?
HOWELL: Well, I really enjoy the interns that we take on here. We choose them from outside London where they are slightly more disciplined on the course. There was a time in London when Saint Martins was really all about creativity only. And it isn’t just that. You have to know about the practicalities of things if you’re a designer. You have to be interested in that as well for it to work.
HICKS: Sometimes when I think of a person with an extremely developed and distinctive personal style I have a bit of pity for their loved ones who find themselves in the unenviable position of having to buy them a birthday gift. Can you tell us about a gift that you received that you really, genuinely liked?
HOWELL: This will sound strange. I swim in an open-air pool, through the winter as well. It’s only slightly heated so my daughter gave me a neoprene top to wear swimming. And I tried but I didn’t like it for swimming, but when you put in on after swimming it immediately makes you feel very warm. So I wear it cycling to the pool and cycling back and it’s invaluable. For me, that was a brilliant, thoughtful present.
HICKS: Is it true that you cook almost all of your meals for yourself? What would you cook for me if I came to dinner?
HOWELL: I value health and diet and all the rest. I was brought up with parents who grew vegetables in the garden so we had lashings of lovely fresh vegetables and things. So, yes, I cook a nice meal—too much—every night for myself and I bring my own lunch into the office too. If I were to invite you to dinner, we might have a nice rib eye steak. I also love Japanese rice and steamed vegetables. Very simple but very good things.
HICKS: That sounds lovely. I’ll wait for my invitation.
Originally published in Dapper Dan 15, 2017.