On the never-ending hamster wheel of fashion trends, Margaret Howell stands apart as a steady and classic mainstay of British design, something she has done for 50 years this year. Howell's designs work to find a balance between refinement and roughness, whereby each season she presents understated, modern and utilitarian silhouettes in relatively muted colour palettes, slightly tweaked and updated each time.
Of late, the fashion industry has started to question the need for continual newness, with flash-in-the-pan PR stunts and disposable fashion now leaving a sour taste in the mouth. It's in this moment that Howell celebrates her golden anniversary of being in fashion, low-key reminding everyone that she's been doing the slow fashion lifestyle thing all along. The designer's 50th anniversary event kicked off London Fashion Week with a moment of welcome reflection ahead of the deluge of new season collections.
So how can we learn from Howell's experiences as fashion attempts to go back to basics? 'I always knew what I wanted in the way of clothes, and that turned out to be the sort of clothes that were suitable for a practical lifestyle, like the shirt and the trousers, jeans and work wear and everything like that,' she explains. Constructed in fabrics such as flannel and corduroy, Irish linen, cotton and cashmere, her workwear is uncomplicated and the opposite of flashy. 'It's anti-smart but well made and good quality,' she says: all could be the requirements any future purchase has to fulfil.
Howell's eponymous brand has its roots planted as firmly in modern design as in tradition, heritage and memory, and to celebrate her five decades in fashion, those influences are explored through an archival display inside the Wigmore Street store, curated by Howell herself. After looking back at the first things she made in the 1970s, she brought both her early shirts and workwear jackets and brand memorabilia from across the decades, to show the brand's journey and continuity.
Alongside the archive exhibition, Howell premiered a short film made by Emily Richardson on Thursday evening, which brings the brand history to life. Available to view online today, the film maps out the inspirations which have been constant across the brand's history. As Howell noted, 'the film was an idea to try and convey what is difficult to say in words. It's about what makes me tick.'
Similarly to the archive on display, the film flits between shots of landscapes across the British Isles, to fabrics and Howell's design process. Close-up shots of fabrics in the film are spliced between the weathered seafront of the Suffolk coast and Howell's workshop. You can almost taste the salty, cold air which pushes a heavy sense of nostalgia onto the viewer - this same nostalgia inhabits the landscapes that have served as backdrops to Howell's campaigns over the years.
'It's here [in these settings] that you get a sense of reality to the clothes, and a genuine-ness' she explains. These photographs featured throughout the display, and mannequins dressed in Harris tweed were placed in front a shot of the South Downs in Sussex by Alasdair McLellan, pulled Howell's different inspirations out in plain sight.
In fact it was the Suffolk countryside that brought Howell and filmmaker Richardson together – Howell is based in Suffolk, and after seeing Richardson's work capturing British architect John Penn's Suffolk house, Howell sensed Richardson was the woman for the job, explaining, 'there was a certain feeling behind the work, and I knew that she would be the right kind of person to work with me on this film.'
Both archive and film establish that it's a connection between the fabrics, the people who make them, and landscape that underpins all Margaret Howell does.
She is drawn to the textural and woven aesthetic of fabrics, rather than the colourful and the decorative, and the materials she uses find their surface and colour palette in the natural world. '[The materials have] grown out of something - that makes [them] what [they are].'
As well as the natural origins of her raw materials, the human touch is equally vital to the Margaret Howell raison d'être: 'The making of things was and is so important to me, and it’s part of what it’s all about' she explains. Because of the value she places on craft, Howell still endeavours to work with the few craftsman that are left (despite the English manufacturing industry not being what it used to be), such as John Smedley, who she looks to for 'beautiful quality, fully fashioning knitwear'. Howell's bags are made by White House Cox, whose beautiful leather and stitching reminds Howell of the bags she admired as a little girl. The display and film establish Margaret Howell's personal approach, revealing a thread of memory which runs throughout her clothes. Her first raincoats were designed from the memory of her dad's raincoat, which used to hang in the family garage, and the very fabrics she uses also find footing in her childhood.
'I remember a chunk of lovely natural-coloured coarse linen that a great aunt gave me. I remember the smell of the linen that we used to embroider on when we were children. The memory of certain clothes that my parents wore, that had aged with wear... When things wear down, they soften: it's attractive.'
For Howell, clothes and design go hand in hand, she doesn't think of herself as a fashion designer. While clothing rails line the walls of her stores, they are interspersed by gorgeous ceramics, vintage pottery and homeware that further represents the values behind Howell's ethos . The Wigmore Street space has previously housed Anglepoise lamps and Ercol vintage chairs, alongside exhibitions featuring photographic works by Irving Penn and Alasdair McLellan.
Looking forward to the Margaret Howell A/W 20 womenswear show on Sunday, the designer suggests the collection may also nod to the 50 year anniversary: 'As we’ve been styling it, I’m aware of certain connections with the display in the shop. I enjoy the sort of exaggeration or slight unreal quality of styling, and I think there will be connections to the past, but not deliberately. We don’t think about the show when we design our collections of clothes. When it comes to the styling, that’s when we play around with the clothes and hope to get something across.'