Design Classics: the versatile, understated essence of Margaret Howell
For this installment of his series on cult design classics, Andy Myring of The Maverick Group pays homage to Margaret Howell’s minimalist style, which celebrates practicality and timelessness.
Quiet, but compelling – Howell’s sophisticated style is effortless / Rizky Sabriansyah via Unsplash
Over the last 50 years, Margaret Howell has quietly carved out a place in the British fashion pantheon with her unfussy, functional style. Utilitarian but tasteful, her clothes have become classics, and often come in subdued, natural tones.
Howell’s minimalist fashions have won her fans worldwide, particularly among creative people. Chefs, actors, film directors, designers, architects – they’ve all been seen sporting a Howell original. What sets Howell apart is that her clothes are clothes, never fads or trends. They support a broader philosophy that values quality fabrics and well-honed techniques, rejecting ostentation in favor of genuine usefulness.
A Howell garment is built not just for everyday use, but for everyone. With an egalitarian edge, she designs clothes that are not beholden to age, body shape or gender. In her world, passing trends remain just that, with negligible influence. Howell’s clothes are designed to be kept forever: timeless and durable.
For Howell, the goal isn’t spectacle, but rather ease and comfort. She prefers to see people wearing their everyday clothes rather than ‘all dressed up’ in uncomfortable items like formal shoes. Taking all this into account, it’s perhaps no surprise that Howell doesn’t see herself as a fashion designer, and is reluctant to attach this term to her name. In her view, the public regard fashion as something that’s excessive, flamboyant and superficial – which it has every right to be – but it’s not her ethos at all.
Instead, Howell’s work focuses on the use of superior materials, outstanding workmanship and undeniably British style. Right from the beginning, she has made use of British fabrics, from English worsted wool and corduroy, to flannel, Irish linen and fine cotton shirting. Howell is drawn to materials that wear well, with their own distinctive charm. Her fabrics have qualities that aren’t easily reproduced.
The challenge lies in using these materials innovatively, while preserving a sense of heritage. Howell likes to retain a sense of tradition, no matter what country the fabric is from. In the UK, Howell still works with names that she was drawn to when she was just starting out such as Fox Brothers, Harris Tweed and Spence Bryson Linens, as well as various Scottish knitwear mills.
While Howell never dreamed of being a designer, she had always taken pleasure in drawing and creating. It set her on the path to art school, where she enjoyed life drawing and the challenge of working to a brief. Art school also enabled her to explore the work of designers past and present, as well as different disciplines, from printing to sculpture.
Ultimately, it was this art school experience that cemented Howell’s career choice in her mind. She recognized that her talent lay in ‘making things’ and decided that this was where her future lay. In many ways, ‘designer’ was Howell’s destiny, rather than a job title.
Howell’s first sketches were not based on collections or themes, but more on people’s requirements. She thought not just about the visual impact of a piece, but about how it would feel to wear it.
Howell believes her fondness for handmade designs originated in her childhood, watching her mother make clothes. As a young girl in the leafy Surrey suburb of Tadworth, she saw dress-making close-up and developed a love of good fabrics.
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An early appreciation for the arts
Following these formative experiences in the forties and fifties, Howell went to Goldsmiths College, University of London. She graduated with a degree in fine arts and began making jewelry from papier-mâché. Although successful, Howell switched to making men’s shirts at home in Blackheath, London, armed with a single pattern cutter and finisher. By 1973, she had opened a workshop selling wholesale garments to everyone from Ralph Lauren to Paul Smith.
Howell opened her first shop in London in 1977, initially stocking men’s clothes. In the eighties, she added women’s clothing to satisfy growing demand from female customers. Fast forward the decades and the aesthetic of Howell’s ranges has changed very little, still bearing the hallmarks of good design and painstaking care and precision.
There is no pretension or extraneous detail – just thoughtful consideration of use and purpose. In a materialistic, fast-fashion world, Howell’s clothes are not ephemeral, luxury purchases. That’s why her customers will still find their favorite shirt (or its descendant) on the shelves in her 100+ stores and concessions, even though they may have bought the original many years ago. Howell’s outlets are now present in the UK, Europe, South Korea and Japan.
When she isn’t applying her eye to fashion, Howell creates calendars revealing her passions and interests. These range from the predictable (modern design, photography, fine art and architecture) to the less expected (swimming, swimming pools, coastal landscapes and traditional British crafts). First produced in 1995, the calendars are sold to raise money for Open City, Margaret Howell Ltd’s chosen charity.
Today, Howell splits her time between Lewisham, London and her sixties modernist holiday house in Suffolk. As unassuming as her clothes, she continues to calmly shape British style with her low-key, unaffected taste. Her stores not only stock her collections, but also limited-edition items by the great and good of British design: Anglepoise lights, Robert Welch cutlery and Ercol furniture (the same Ercol with whom she worked on a series of vintage chair designs).
Juxtaposing design masterpieces with Howell’s understated pieces is a totally logical move. Together, they form a display that radiates heritage and enduring, iconic style.
Authentic and distinctive, Margaret Howell’s clothes embody timeless functionality. Her simple aesthetic continues to influence quietly, but compellingly.
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