“It was in 1978, when I was changing my first baby’s nappy, that a letter from Stanley Kubrick’s production company dropped through the door,” recalls Margaret Howell. The notoriously fastidious auteur was in pre-production for The Shining, and the letter was an order request for 12 replicas of a corduroy jacket his star, Jack Nicholson, had purchased from one of Howell’s stockists in Los Angeles, Maxfield Bleu. It turned out Nicholson loved her design so much that he insisted on wearing it to inhabit the role of Jack Torrance. While she isn’t star-struck-prone, “it’s always a thrill when someone I admire wears our clothes,” admits Howell. Today, her vocal admirers include Alexa Chung, Bill Nighy, and Frances McDormand.
Born in 1946 in Tadworth, Surrey (a bucolic county south of London), as a teenager Howell enjoyed making her own clothes, developing her lifelong relationship to fabric in the process. A precocious knowledge of and passion for clothing’s construction meant that when she first discovered British heritage apparel such as Mackintosh, John Smedley, Scottish knitwear, and bench-made shoes, she was able to truly understand the craft and well-earned pride behind them.
“Before I started on my career, I remember saving up to buy a Burberry raincoat, a crewneck shetland sweater, and a pair of Church’s brogues, simply because I loved them,” Howell reminisces. “But when I began designing, I wanted to lighten construction and soften formality. I was really using tradition as a starting point and trying to give it new life.” Growing up in post–World War II England embedded early lessons in sustainability that stuck with her. “It taught me not to waste. And, I shall never forget, my father used to say, ‘If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.’”
Her vocal admirers include Alexa Chung, Bill Nighy, and Frances McDormand.
Howell certainly works in strict accordance to her father’s maxim, with her eponymous brand having celebrated an impressive 50 years in business in 2020. At around 500 staff worldwide and with an annual turnover of more than $100 million, her sure-footed consistency is an essential asset. Though fashions have changed considerably in the last five decades, the precise Margaret Howell sensibility has remained remarkably, confidently the same—always opting for classically unostentatious pieces over ephemerally gaudy trends. “As for the design, I don’t think my approach has changed,” says Howell.
Considering her almost austere aesthetic, it’s rather remarkable to think that Howell was pursuing an art degree in London during the Swinging Sixties. “Like most of my generation, I was excited by the revolution of British 60s fashion, though I didn’t always want to wear it myself,” confesses Howell. After graduating Goldsmiths, University of London, in 1969, she channeled her fine-arts education into handcrafting accessories. Vogue took note of her papier-mâché necklaces, which encouraged her to embark on designing clothes professionally, starting with men’s wear.
While she worked out of a modest apartment in Blackheath, in southeast London, early buyers such as Paul Smith and Ralph Lauren made her business “an immediate, if somewhat unexpected, success.” Inspired by the liberating and unfussy looks of Katharine Hepburn, Jane Birkin, Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim, and Jean Seberg in Breathless, she expanded into women’s wear in time to serve those looking to replicate Diane Keaton’s androgynous Annie Hall wardrobe.
While Margaret Howell is big at home in the U.K., it should come as no surprise that in Japan she’s bigger, where, staggeringly, she has more than 100 outlets. “Japan is a lively and creative place where very different styles and influences flourish side by side,” says Howell. “I think my respect for tradition and quality struck a chord with many Japanese people, as does my approach to clothing as part of a lifestyle rather than just a fashion.” (It’s hard to think of a country more reverential and tirelessly preserving of quality craft than Japan.)
What accounts for the rare permanence of Margaret Howell’s relevance and success despite the baked-in turnover of the fashion world? Maybe it has something to do with that uncanny ability to never let aesthetics come at the cost of utility, or vice versa.
“I am more a clothes designer than a fashion designer,” Howell puts it simply. “I want things to be comfortable and useful rather than just something to be looked at.”
Her clothing isn’t cheap (a recent update of Jack Nicholson’s M025 windbreaker was reissued for $750), but it exists to last the purchaser’s life—representing the best true value in the end. “The current situation makes it very clear that what we think are individual choices, these do have an impact on the world. We should all ask serious questions about the value of what we buy.”
Spike Carter is a writer and filmmaker. His next project is a documentary about Eric Roberts