British fashion designer
Born: Tadworth, Surrey, 5 September 1946. Education: Studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths' College, London. Family: Divorced; children: two. Collections: Museum of Costume, Bath; Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Address: 5 Garden House, 8 Battersea Park Road, London SW8 4BG, UK.
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From an early age I remember having an awareness of clothes and a response to those of my parents; the softness of my Father's well-worn cotton shirts and raincoat, the slim hang of a pleated chiffon dress my Mother used for ballroom dancing. She made her children's clothes; I loved the smell of new cotton as it was cut. I had fun making my school uniform stylish in the early 1960s. We wore our skirts long with ankle socks. We bought men's cardigans from Marks and Spencer. I enjoyed the androgynous character of the white shirt, the duffle coat and the double-breasted gabardine raincoats. In fact, I was styling the basics which I think is what I do now. I take a classic and reinterpret it by cut, detailing and the choice of fabric to make it modern and enjoyable to wear.
I am interested in the selection and then the editing process that goes on in design and in the grouping of things together to make a statement as a result of their selection. I am more interested in styling, quality, and workmanship than in the impact of fashion, but the styling has to run parallel with a current fashion that is determined by lifestyle and the needs of today.
An established name in British fashion design, Margaret Howell originally trained as a fine artist at Goldsmiths' College of Art in London in the 1960s. Although having no formal training in fashion, in 1971 she produced her first range of accessories, the success of which led to the creation of a small business, printing and selling scarves to boutiques. Later she began designing men's shirts, which were sold in South Molton Street by Joseph.
Her clothes for both men and women, designed from the early 1970s onwards, are based on a typically English look, using vernacular materials such as Melton cloth, tweed, and wool. The clothing makes references to what are considered to be traditional approaches to dressing—the British traditions of cashmere and tweeds but twisted into a more relaxed image which is particularly appealing to Americans.
Howell has operated a shop in New York, and her reinterpretations of classic English clothes—a style dubbed "preppy" in the U.S. and equally successfully interpreted in Ralph Lauren's Polo range— negotiate a series of experiments around standard garments such as the striped cotton shirt, box pleated skirt, Fair Isle sweater, or archetypal cardigan as in the 1994 cashmere version with tiny pearl buttons worn with silk pajama bottoms. The clothes themselves seem hardly to alter from season to season, and it seems ironic that Howell, a designer noted for timeless classics, is involved in the fashion world, which operates on the notion of novelty for novelty's sake rather than being allied to any improved functionality.
"Timelessness" and "classic," however, are a staple part of fashion terminology used to describe and market looks connoting notions of wealth and taste through good tailoring and the use of traditional materials. The classic look signifies affluence through the wearing of clothes that fit within the parameters of understated elegance and sophisticated taste; an emphasis on the texture of the materials used and the expertise of tailoring rather than more obviously conceptual ideas like grunge or punk. This concept has been successfully utilized in the design and marketing of Armani, say, or Hermés.
Howell's clothes also operate successfully on the notion of nostalgia. Past eras such as the 1930s are referenced in women's eveningwear, particularly the 1950s in daywear, an evocation of an Enid Blyton world where boys wear cricket flannels or knee-length shorts and girls wear cotton frocks, short socks, and cardies. In the early 1980s, British style guru Peter York dubbed Howell the designer for Babytimers, those who wore archaic children's clothes particularly from their own childhoods, clothes with a children's book feel as worn by the Famous Five or Just William. Striped blazers, Fair Isle slipovers, macintoshes, and flannel trousers in archaic cuts are all staples of Howell's collections. With the demise of the Babytime era, however, and the assertion of the tougher 1980s power look, Howell's clothes were later bought for their comfort and "classic" qualities by the more "aesthetically aware" consumer who considered yarns, dyes, and reworkings of conventional clothing forms before the vagaries of high fashion.
The contemporary Howell look is praised for its pared-down line and simple silhouettes, the controlled restraint of shape and color, the workmanship and quality of cloth and cut. By the mid-1990s, she was concentrating on women's clothing, particularly trouser suits, which have always been an integral part of her collections. The 1994 autumn/winter version featured masculine suiting feminized with soft chiffon scarves. Her designs for jackets, eveningwear, and nightwear still have a feel for styles of the past—such as her 1994 white handkerchief linen pajamas. These styles evoke memories of her own childhood, such as her father's gardening raincoat that hung on the back door, her mother's cotton dresses, and an English sporting look popularized by designers from Chanel onward and seen in Howell's nautical navy cotton cardigans with brass buttons and linen jodhpurs, worn with a white linen shawl-collared shirt.
By the beginning of 2000, Howell's empire had grown to employ 300 people worldwide, with global sales of £30 million. She has capitalized on the popularity of British design in Japan, designing under license for the Japanese company Anglobal and has 70 shops and concessions there, in contrast to only 10 in her home country. "Today Margaret Howell is the second biggest-selling British designer in Japan after Paul Smith," reported New Business magazine. "The Japanese love her linens, denims, and floral cottons for summer which are as English as cricket or cream teas. In winter, Howell's Far Eastern customers clamor for her tweeds, knitwear and stylish raincoats which have been adapted to their sophisticated demands."
Managing director Richard Craig was hired to help save Howell's company from a near collapse after the fashion industry shrank in the late 1980s at the same time Howell overexpanded. He has continued to guide the company, hoping to add to his successes in Britain and Japan by developing American and Western European markets. "But we want to build slowly, carefully and profitably," he told New Business.
Allowing a pro to handle the books while maintaining design freedom seems to work for Howell, who is entering her fourth decade at the cutting edge of a notoriously fickle business. She has become as much of a fashion classic as the clothing she favors. "Some things come back and have an appeal in a new era," she told Susannah Barron of The Guardian. "They are the real classics."
updated by Lisa Groshong