NEAR WOODBRIDGE, United Kingom — Dense fog hugs the road to Margaret Howell’s seaside residence near Woodbridge in Suffolk, a flat rural landscape with big skies that played muse to the designer's favourite artist, the English Romantic painter John Constable. As we approach, Margaret is bent over, picking a bunch of snowdrops from her garden that she places in a small vase after welcoming us in. She has kept the interior of her house, designed in 1965 by Swiss modernist Rudy Mock, almost exactly as it was when it was created, with now well-worn wooden parquet flooring, a contrasting avocado and white Formica kitchen, and a small den with orange carpeting and brown wooden walls that seems to vibrate with colour. Though sparsely furnished, the corners of the light, open-plan sitting-cum-dining room host objects Margaret has collected, like a stone found on the nearby shingle beach that resembles a little owl.
As we return from a brief outing to shoot a portrait on the still-misty lanes of the nearby village (for which, Margaret changes into sturdy leather walking boots to stop her feet from getting cold), she chats with everyone we meet, from the man mowing the grass outside to friends who stop their car as they pass. Forty years in fashion — during which time the company she founded, and still directs creatively, has grown to generate revenue in excess of £100 million per year, with projected annual growth of 10 to 15 percent — have certainly not given her airs, or a taste for the habits of wealth. When she comes here from her office in London, Margaret takes the dial-a-ride bus from the train station, which is free because she’s over 60 years old (67, to be precise). And at her home, there’s also no assistant or protective PR hanging around — just Margaret, making strong coffee in a French press and laying out a plate of syrupy oatmeal biscuits.
“It really started when I came out of art school [in 1969] and knew I didn’t want to be an artist and didn’t want to teach," she starts, recalling how she first got into fashion. "My sister Jean had done a printing course at Goldsmiths and afterwards started to print scarves, but to earn money she also went teaching, so I helped her with [the scarves]. It gave me time to think that I could make something and sell it in the same sort of way. That was one of the reasons it all happened — that one could make something and take it as a sample to sell.”
Indeed, it was the simple need to earn money from making that led her into design. In fact, the family had always made their own clothes growing up. So, it was unexpected, especially given her brand’s unfussy and modest aesthetic, to learn that it was the glamourous figure of Elizabeth Taylor who gave Margaret the break that spurred her on.
“In 1970, I used to make papier mâché beads out of newspaper and mixed them with bought ones to make chokers and bracelets, and those I sold to [London boutique] Browns. It took a bit of nerve to take them in to show. The beads were noticed by a costume designer for films, and I got a request to make something for Elizabeth Taylor. I couldn’t believe it, and was terribly nervous because we had to go down and meet her at Elstree Studios. It was this awful thing I did for her — a beaded top — but it gave me a couple of hundred pounds, which in those days, was sort of something, and the encouragement to carry on.”
Though Margaret now leaves the more commercial aspects of running the business to the company's managing director, Richard Craig, she showed an early instinct for business, employing others to produce the growing orders she received for her beadwork and, then, shirts in order to scale her budding enterprise. “Even with the beads, I organised for people to make them for me, because when you get orders you can’t just sit there and make them yourself, it would take forever. And I sort of enjoyed all that — the production process of getting things made and organised. Then, I found this outfit at a jumble sale including a shirt that was so beautifully made and the cloth was lovely quality, and I thought I could make men’s shirts in a soft way, but really well.”
The shirts, which were of Jermyn Street quality but with a more relaxed line, were made first by Howell and then by a group of machinists in a workshop she set up in 1973 as the orders stacked up. Her designs attracted the attention of a young, influential generation of buyers who came over from the US in the early 1970s, including the now legendary Tommy Perse, founder of Los Angeles-based concept store Maxfield’s, and none other than Ralph Lauren, who in those days sold other brands alongside his own. Closer to home, Paul Smith and Browns bought her shirts, but is was Joseph Ettedgui of the London-based retailer Joseph who really helped launch Howell as a clothing brand in her own right: “He was one of the first to really believe in me, I think. When I went to Browns they just wanted to put their label in, which I let them do, but it was nice when someone liked me, as me.”
In 1977, Margaret Howell opened her first menswear shop with the help of Joseph on London's South Molton Street. Then, in 1980, in response to demand from smart women who wanted modern suiting and who had been buying her men’s garments for themselves, she launched a womenswear line along with her first wholly owned store on St Christopher’s Place, near Bond Street. “Women would come in to buy the [men's] jackets and trousers in the South Molton Street shop in the late 1970s in the Annie Hall period. I suppose the customers were mainly in the media, music business and films — that sort of thing — or working-women that needed to wear a suit. I think good quality tailoring for women wasn’t so easy to find, especially if it was more of a modern cut and that was where I came in really, modernising Jaeger and Burberry, things like that.” The company's main womenswear line is now their best-selling collection, followed by their shirting.
Margaret Howell never went to fashion college. “For me, it was helpful to have not gone. I suppose my taste is quite conservative and I think fashion colleges can encourage madness. It was good for me, because I broke the rules in constructions and patterns: I used to start with a conventional pattern, but I would draw the sort of feeling I wanted to get into that piece of clothing, sort of like doing our own haircuts when we were teenagers. If you know what you want you can do it.”
Her taste in art bucked the trend among her contemporaries too. She was into figurative artists like Manet, Van Gogh and Constable, while her fellows at Goldsmiths were into more abstract art. And, on reflection, it's perhaps her calm focus on practical pieces, rooted in tradition and rendered in colours and textures that are more evocative of natural surroundings than of urbane flights of fancy, that has given her brand lasting appeal.
Howell was one of the British brands, along with Paul Smith, picked up by Japanese businessmen who came to the UK in the early 1980s, looking for designers with whom they could do licencing deals. “There was a chap called Sam [Segure] who used to import things to Japan and he liked what we did, so he took some of the clothes over. He built it slowly and carefully and he always kept an eye on the quality and so did we. We sent samples out, made in the UK, and he would get them made in Japan where it was cheaper — but just as good — and as he built up the company with designers, they could expand a little bit. We would keep even more control on the design as it grew and that’s what one's done all the time, keep as much control on the design as possible.”
Howell has flourished in the Japanese market while many others fell by the wayside. Indeed, the country now accounts for 85 percent of the company’s turnover. “I don’t really know why the Japanese like the clothes so much, but I think it might be the quality or the naturalness of them. That real edited sort of minimal simplicity, which I love, maybe there’s a certain group in Japan that like that sort of thing.”
Since her first standalone store opened in Aoyama, Tokyo, in 1983, the brand’s retail presence in Japan has grown to 89 stores, compared to 12 stores in Europe (mostly in the UK). Moreover, in 1990, Margaret Howell sold a majority stake in the business to publicly-listed Japanese company Anglobal, part of TSI Holdings (Howell and Craig each retain minority stakes). And, unsurprisingly, communication between the company's office in the UK and Japan is constant: “One goes there and goes through every single sample and there’s constant communication. There’s a Japanese girl who sits next to me who is the liaison and I go to Japan twice a year and they come here twice a year.”
But Howell and Craig have been keen to manage Anglobal's desire to expand the business too quickly, especially its second-line MHL, which, Howell insists was not launched for commercial reasons, but because of her love of practical clothing. “That came about because I like workwear really, and cotton clothes and t-shirts with printed marks on them. There’s that side of it that seemed hard to put in the main collection, once one was established as a high-quality label with fine fabrics. We didn’t want it to be a diffusion line. At one point, it veered off — and in Japan, of course, it’s very easy to veer off — and I had to really pull them back. That’s what I do when I go there: I really edit and it has worked.”
However uncomfortable the thought of a major retail rollout makes Howell — “I close my ears these days, because I really don't like the thought of it” — it’s happening. Indeed, in the next few years store openings are planned for Berlin and Florence. A second store will open on the Left Bank of Paris, along with several more in the Far East.
Growth has challenged Howell as a designer too, and she now delegates some of the design work to a team that she oversees: “But it’s very hard to delegate design," she says, "because I was a very personal designer and I would find something that had a feeling or a memory or something like that, a real concept for a piece of clothing.”
She receives letters from long-standing customers telling her that her clothes simply make them feel good. “For me it goes without saying that clothes should be comfortable and I probably use materials that more commercially-minded people wouldn’t use. There’s a natural feeling about the clothes — never smart and pristine, always more relaxed — and that is the style. It’s sort of unadorned, natural, but good quality.”
It's clear that the style that Howell describes — her style — flows directly from the way she lives her life. And long may it last, as in a market flooded with options, design like hers feels uniquely nourishing.