Margaret Howell on Five Decades of British Style

By Mariko Finch
Ahead of the Modern & Post-War British Art sale on 18 and 19 June, celebrated British designer, Margaret Howell , discusses life at art school, her affinity for functional design and her Barbara Hepworth inspired collection.

Mariko Finch: What was your route to where you find yourself today? When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?

Margaret Howell: I didn’t set out to be a designer but in hindsight I realise why I became one. From as far as I can remember I have enjoyed making things and drawing, so my route started with Art School. In my time there I enjoyed the disciplines of life drawing and working to a brief, but I was also exposed to the world of design and the legacy of the Bauhaus. I realised that making things was what I could do and what I wanted to do in life.

Margaret Howell in her London studio, photographed by Nina Manandhar, May 2019.

MF: What is a typical working day like in the studio of Margaret Howell?

MH: The Wigmore Street Studio houses production staff as well as designers. Sometimes the atmosphere is quiet with a serious air of concentration. More often it's alive with movement and meetings – design approvals, fabric selections, etc. There is also a flow of communication with Press and Visual Merchandising/Marketing, who work in rooms leading off from the retail shop floor.

MF: Is art incorporated in to your working process?

MH: I’m not sure that it is. However, I am aware there is an intuitive aesthetic sense of colour combination, proportion and shape and the inexplicable recognition of knowing when an idea “works”.

Margaret Howell  SS19.
Margaret Howell Spring Summer 2019 campaign.

MF: Is there a figure from history — or the present day — that inspires you the most?

MH: One example could be Charlotte Perriand, whose designs were both creative and functional. She embraced work and life with vigour. I’ve taken inspiration from images of her in tough cotton trousers and leather ankle boots alongside her male colleagues on building sites. And I empathise with the famous photograph of her - back view and topless at an open window - embracing the cold, fresh air and snow-capped mountain view.

In my teenage years, when I became interested in clothes, I used to buy French Elle Magazine and admired Yves Saint Laurent. And also Jean Muir. Later I grouped Alvar Aalto with them both. All three have made work with an unfussy timeless quality.

The Margaret Howell flagship store on Wigmore Street, London. Photographed by Nina Manandhar.

MF: Can you talk a little bit about the collection you designed in homage to Barbara Hepworth?

MH: I didn’t hesitate when asked to make a Collection for the Tate Britain shop alongside the Barbara Hepworth exhibition. I had gained such inspiration when I visited her studio in St Ives and saw her sculptures in the garden against the sky and plants. Her family photographs depicted a lifestyle that resonated with my own family holidays in St Ives in the 1950s. I had in mind her own work clothes hanging from a rail in her studio and chose items of similar colour and textures – a brown canvas apron, an indigo artist smock and dungarees, a chalk coloured overshirt – for the Collection.

"I was exposed to the world of design and the legacy of the Bauhaus"

MF: Your designs are synonymous with British style; and known for being elegant, classic and understated. What do think is the essence of British style?

MH: Perhaps one of the reasons I’m associated with British style is because I began designing using British fabrics such as corduroys, fine cotton shirting, and West of England worsted and flannel. These are heritage fabrics well tried and tested. They wear in well and last and have a unique character that is hard to replicate. I like the challenge of using them in a fresh way. But there is also a love of Irish linen, while the traditional French matelot jersey and beret are recurring items in our range of clothing. I think it's the traditional element itself that appeals to me, whether it be British, Irish, French, Japanese, or other.

MF: A great amount of thought, research, and creativity and collaboration goes in to producing a collection. Would you consider clothing to be wearable art?

MH: No, not in my case. I design a functional product and sometimes there has to be a compromise. I don’t associate functionality or compromise with art.

Objects on display in Margaret Howell's Wigmore Street store.

MF: Where do you draw inspiration from, is it a variety of sources?

MH: Yes, a variety. For the design team, it is often vintage clothing, photographic and art exhibitions. For me also, but a walk in the country or along the shoreline can be very inspirational for colour and form. I find inspiration comes when you’re not looking for it.

MF: What was the defining moment of your career, and what was the biggest lesson you’ve learned from the evolution of your brand?

MH: Moving to Wigmore Street came when the company was expanding, and my role became Design Director. We now had a shop that was large enough to show other areas of design that I was interested in as an environment for our clothes. My personal interests could now be expressed through small exhibitions, calendars, and collaborations etc.

MF: Can you tell us about any exciting projects that you are currently working on?

MH: We’re working on a project for our 50th anniversary next year.

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