Howell has been a strong, if quiet, presence on the British design scene for nearly four decades. Keynote designs are her take on the shirt, gymslip, lace-up shoes, duffle coat and trench coat. Many have an androgynous quality underlined by a succession of carefully controlled photographic campaigns. These are shot on location in black and white and by such sympathetic spirits as Bruce Weber, Koto Bolofo, and Venetia Scott.
After graduating and having been turned down for a job in the BBC make-up department, Howell started making accessories. Her hand-made beads came to the attention of Vogue and led to a meeting with Liz Taylor, then shooting ‘Zee and Co’ in London.
The label that bears her name was launched from a kitchen table in South East London in 1972, and was an immediate, if somewhat unexpected, success. In 1972 Howell, with partner Paul Renshaw, began to design make and sell shirts from their flat in Blackheath, South East London. The business grew, encouraged by Paul Smith and leading US retailers, including Jasmin Ram. In partnership with Joseph Ettedgui, a Margaret Howell men’s shop opened in South Molton Street in London in 1976. It was followed by the first wholly owned Margaret Howell shop in St Christopher's Place in 1980. The early 1980s were a period of expansion for the label. Jack Nicholson insisted on wearing his own Margaret Howell corduroy jacket for his role in 1980’s The Shining, prompting an order for 12 duplicates from Stanley Kubrick. 1982 saw Grace Coddington choose a Howell piece as Dress of the Year.
A New York shop opened in Manhattan in 1982 and in 1983 the first Margaret Howell standalone shop opened in Aoyama, Tokyo. This rapid expansion caused both business and personal difficulties. The couple divorced in 1987 and Renshaw left the company. It was reorganised in 1990 with the help of Sam Sugure and Richard Craig, who remains today as Managing Director.
The new management proved successful and there followed a decade of steady growth culminating in a Paris shop opening in 2009, then the opening of the flagship Wigmore Street shop in 2002. Today Margaret Howell Ltd employs some 300 people in 80 locations.
Howell also uses Wigmore Street to champion designers and causes she admires. (Japan Hose Book) Anglepoise lamps, Robert Welch cutlery, and furniture by Ernest Race and Ercol complement the clothes, as do occasional exhibitions featuring, among others, the work of architect John Penn and the graphic art of H A Rothholz and the 1950s St Ives group of artists. Howell is a committed supporter of Open House – the charity that promotes access to notable buildings throughout the UK – and in association with them and the RIBA.
She still lives in South East London and has two children: Miriam, born 1978, and Edward, 1981.
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