Margaret Howell

Margaret Howell: “The clothes become a part of you”

Short Profile

Name: Margaret Howell
DOB: 5 September 1946
Place of birth: Surrey, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Clothing designer

Ms. Howell, as a clothing designer for over 50 years, what does quality mean to you?

When I think of quality, I guess I naturally think about cloth and fabrics. Even when I was younger, my idea of quality was a Cacharel shirt or a Shetland sweater, or very well-made shoes, or even a Burberry raincoat; things I aspired to. I would save up for these things. With my own work, I’ve always had an intuitive sense when I’m searching for something, when I go to textile fairs, I’ll respond to a fabric and know it would make a beautiful raincoat or skirt. And then there’s the actual quality of the weave of the fabric — because I'm always interested in something that will last.

Where do you think that intuition about quality comes from?

I think in my case, it came from my upbringing, from my mother. In her family background, there were some antique dealers, so she was interested in furniture and things like that. She loved clothes when she was younger, she used to work in a dress shop and model the clothes for customers. It was quite a high-class dress shop, and I think the quality of the fabrics stuck with her. I was born just after the Second World War, and at the time, people used to make their own clothes — so I just think my mother had this sort of feeling for natural quality. Even though it was quite modest, there was a natural quality about my upbringing, I think.

“It’s nice having things that you really believe in and really love and aspire to, and then you live with them and they become like friends.”

Is that deep love and appreciation of quality and authenticity something that extends to your life outside of fashion?

Oh, of course. Something that comes to mind is that in our early days, when we were just beginning to be recognized as a brand, we bought a Corbusier chaise longue. And now years later it's still a favorite piece of furniture in the space I've got now. It's wearing in and it has all these memories, you know, I remember my children playing on it at and I have a memory of being pregnant with my first child and sitting on that thing… It's nice having things that you really believe in and really love and aspire to, and then you live with them and they become like friends, you know, the longer you know a good friend the deeper the relationship.

Do you think that’s how people feel about your clothing?

I think sometimes they do! A lot of people have talked about how the clothes become a part of you, which is what I'd hoped for, I suppose — but almost unconsciously because when I started designing a raincoat or linen jacket, it was always to make it feel lived in, I wanted to give my clothes that lived-in feeling.

Apparently you’re often inspired by everyday people like the postman, or the courier on his bike; working people who really wear and live in their clothes in the real world.

Another big inspiration was sportswear; this kind of specialist manufacturing because the people involved in having made these things for a long time, they get it really right! But of course, if I see someone looking good like a workman or cyclist, it can inspire me. I love to make clothes inspired by the everyday; like the duffle coats I used to wear to school, things like that. I especially love when I see someone carrying one of our bags on the tube or something. It's fun to see them in the real world.

Has it been difficult to stay on that course in an industry that loves trends and is constantly changing?

I find beauty in functional clothes, and my style was more leaning towards androgyny, you know, because I lead an active lifestyle, I prefer to wear jeans rather than skirts and so on… So I’ve always just followed that path. Luckily, when I opened my first shop, it was around the time of the film Annie Hall, which had this same androgynous look, so that was a big crossover.

“I quickly learned that I’ve got to only do what I know I can do best. And I just followed that.”

Has much changed in the way that you work over the years? Or has that process stayed consistent for you?

Very consistent. My approach has always been quite practical: I got my start by simply making my own clothes when I was younger. I was quite interested in how you wear clothes and how you build a personal style, so my first designs were just simple workwear pieces I would wear myself. And then I went to art school, and after I graduated, I was trying to find a job that was halfway creative, so I started designing small accessories and taking them to shops, and it just grew from that, really.

What else do you remember about those early days? I read an interview where you talked about your first workshop and how you had the bed raised up on the ceiling so that you could put your sewing machines underneath.

(Laughs) Yes, it was starting from scratch, it was our studio but it was also our home in a rented flat. We were very lucky to have a very low rent at that time. There was a factory fairly nearby that had to close down and so I was lucky to get some sewing machines… It went very gradually at that stage, you know, buying the sewing machine and then buying your first buttonholer… We started to take over the flat, and then it just progressed in the right direction. At that point, I met the designer Joseph [Ettedgui], who was a hairdresser at the time, and he must have seen something in my clothes. He wanted to stock my shirts to to attract his customers as they were waiting for their cuts. He was one of the first people to really encourage me. I remember him saying, “When you do a complete wardrobe for men, I’ll open a shop for you.” And he did.

That must have been an incredible experience, especially for someone who isn’t formally trained as a designer.

It was great having that sort of encouragement and support, because as you said, I went to art school not fashion school, I think that’s had an influence on me. My work now is more to do with how one feels about design in general, I've always thought I'm more akin to being a product designer, because it isn’t to do with a statement or a radical change every six months. I'm more like a design director; I want to put everything on to see how it feels and tweak any proportions that need adjustments. I quickly learned that I've got to only do what I know I can do best. And I just followed that.