Margaret Howell: What I've Learned

The fashion designer on her favourite TV, her first job and what she's learned in the industry

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My family gave me an appreciation of things. My mum’s brother was an architect: he worked on [London arts centre] the Barbican, for that firm of architects. My aunt worked was a fabric designer for Heal’s and worked alongside Robin Day and Lucienne Day. She did the fabric for Heathrow, when that opened. Mum used to make our clothes. She could recognise nice quality cloths. She used to work in a dress shop before she was married and slim. I’ve got a photograph of her modelling the dresses for the customers.

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There’s a reassurance in those traditional English cloths: corduroy, harris tweed, linen, beautiful cottons.


When somebody feels comfortable wearing something, they look alright. You go to occasions like weddings and you see people that normally look great dressed up and you think: ‘Why have you done that?’


We often get nice comments about our staff. Our shop assistants don’t say ‘Can I help you with that?’ I think our customers know what they’re looking for.

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In the very beginning one used to think ‘What would I like to wear?’ Then I’d start drawing and the ideas would come.


What I find extraordinary at the moment in menswear is that ‘moustache’ look. Terribly sort of dressed-up and really old-fashioned-looking. It’s a copy of a past era, which is odd. It’s terrible sort-of “Look at me, I’m the height of fashion”. I’m not really knocking it, it’s just not for me.


Getting recognised in Japan is a relatively recent thing. They say ‘Oh, can I take a photograph?’ I don’t really go in for that. So it’s a case of being polite.


Goldsmiths suited me because it was different areas of art and design. All that life drawing and everything else. I can judge a millimetre when a pocket’s off. It does train you in proportions.


The workman in his overalls, the courier on his bike: it’s those sort of looks I often like. The authenticity of workwear.


I go swimming twice a week, early, before coming to work. Greenwich have invested in an open-air lido. It’s 50 meters. It’s lovely, that long length, swimming outdoors. You don’t want warm water to swim in. You want to make yourself warm by swimming harder.


I’m pretty fussy. I am quite hard on people when it comes to assessing the designs for buying and selling, because otherwise it wouldn’t work. That must seem hard on the designers. But it’s all just work-in-progress, you know?


I’m very attracted to stationary, particularly notebooks. I like smaller notebooks, or thinner ones. They’re good to pull out the pages if you want to. I use a Moleskin as a diary. The pocket at the back is useful for the phone numbers you gather.


There’s a history of doing your own business in our family. My grandfather was a barber and his sisters ran a laundry. His other brother was a barber, too. We were always making things. You make something beautiful and then you sell it. That’s how it started.


Have I Got News For You. I do love that programme. I love Paul Merton.


I applied for a job in the BBC make-up department after college. Hopeless! Because I wasn’t very chatty, and you have to be. And I didn’t know the first thing about make-up.


One of the biggest things to keep under control is expanding the range. Because the more edited, the more clear it is. Whereas commercially, you should want to make the most of it. But that’s not really what I’m keen on.


We would never use a celebrity in our advertising. My task is to try and make the campaigns as real as possible. If I was forced at gunpoint? Bill Nighy always looks suit-y but he is very lovely. And Woody Allen would be great. Jane Birkin on the women’s side. Or any of her daughters. Patti Smith always looks good, doesn’t she?


I cook every day. If I’m in on my own, I would still cook a proper meal.


Bob Dylan will always be a favourite, because of liking him right from the first album. Just the sound of his voice. It’s so wonderful.


What effect did Jack Nicholson wearing one of our corduory jackets in The Shining have? Well, no effect on anything really. Because when we did it we were just wholesaling, and he must have bought his original one from XXXX [50 mins] in Los Angeles. It was his personal one. The production team rang, though, to say could they have 13 of them. That was exciting.  He is, I think, a fantastic actor. Was I fan of the film? Well, not really. I found it irritating.


I’ve always loved The Royal Festival Hall. I love the interior, the way you feel comfortable in that building. The carpeted treads of the stairs. It’s just something about the proportion of the place and the flow of space that’s sort of light, but you feel secure and welcome in it. All the details are very beautifully made and of good quality. And it’s a public space, so it’s used. Which is lovely.


Bad habits? I’m sure, plenty. I don’t think you should publish those.


What I don’t like about models is the perfection you get sometimes. I prefer people with an interesting face.


My parents instilled in me a love of the English countryside by always taking me on holidays to places like Devon and Cornwall, which were very different in those days. We used to stay on farms or in bed and breakfasts. It’s really given me a love of the outdoors and the textures of the landscape and the colours, and all that sort of thing. My parents always wanted to go where the crowds weren’t.


Not to make it look too smart or new. That’s always something one’s quite conscious of when designing men’s clothes. Make it feel right.

Taken from Issue no. 3 of The Big Black Book: our biannual style manual on newstands now. You can download the Esquire UK app here.


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