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Remembering Set ‘Magician’ Michael Howells

The production designer created otherworldly sets for the likes of John Galliano’s Dior, but his fantasies were earthed by the humility of the man himself, writes Tim Blanks.
Michael Howells | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Tim Blanks

LONDON, United Kingdom — To describe Michael Howells, who passed away this morning, as fashion's master of illusion scarcely does credit to his knack for making a piece of cardboard look like the finest French lace or painting a piece of newspaper to look like silk. He was more than a master, he was a magician, and for decades, his magic window-dressed everything from John Galliano's extravaganzas for Dior and Mark Baldwin's ballets for the Rambert Company to Selfridges' Christmas frontage, Versace advertising campaigns, even a Gwen Stefani album cover.

"I get paid to fantasise," Howells once said, but, as other-worldly as his fantasies often were, they were earthed by the humility of the man himself. "Being tall, I can't get away with anything," he rationalised. And tall he most certainly was – 6'7" of acid-tongued, Savile Row-ed elegance. (I once made the mistake of referring to his Ladbroke Grove apartment as a "maisonette". Oh, how we laughed about that later… much later!). He loomed inescapably over Galliano's backstage farrago, which was where I first encountered him in the Nineties, when he was whipping up couture fantasias for Dior. The Marchesa Casati ball orchestrated by Howells at the Opera Garnier will always be my favourite show, the most immersive fashion experience imaginable, every art nouveau alcove alive with a sensuous, eye-popping vignette. (Nijinsky danced again, just for us!)

Michael Howells for Christian Dior | Source: Courtesy Michael Howells for Christian Dior | Source: Courtesy

Michael Howells for Christian Dior | Source: Courtesy

It was his height that eventually got him, in the form of a genetic disorder called Marfan Syndrome which afflicts the unusually tall and thin. But — in the kind of ironic twist that Michael himself would have appreciated — it was probably his height that accounted for his sensitivity to the placement of objects in the world. That was the perspective that helped him orchestrate events made up of a million moving pieces.

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One of the most memorable examples was Cathy and Perry St Germans’s beloved Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall, where Howells was creative director until 2017, when Cathy left following Perry's death. His eye for extraordinary, memorable detail infused every corner of the festival site. One snapshot: in 2015, Cinderella’s huge blue ballgown filled the stately home’s blue drawing room, with its glass slipper accessory sparkling in the shadows of an adjoining room. Costume designer Sandy Powell created the original style, Howells brought the dramatic substance.

He found beauty everywhere, and that was probably the clearest distillation of his “live for the moment” philosophy.  So much of what Howells created was in the moment, designed to be appreciated for the duration of a show or a performance or a party. He gave me his own very persuasive take on that when he was talking about one of the spectacular shindigs he'd orchestrated. “Some people say it’s a shame it’s all gone the following morning. I say, ‘Well, it lasted for eight hours, there were a thousand people, so that’s 8,000 hours of memories.’”

However hackneyed it may sound, Michael Howells gave us a million more.

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