As senior fashion writer for The Sunday Times, in the 1990s and 2000s he became a familiar sight in the front row of fashion shows along with his contemporaries Anna Wintour and Suzy Menkes. He is the author of some 20 books on fashion and designers, including McDowell’s Directory of 20th Century Fashion. In 2008 he was appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to fashion.
McDowell grew up in Gloucestershire and was educated at Durham University. At Durham he wrote for the student newspaper, Palatinate alongside Hunter Davies. While teaching in Rome, he became an assistant to Italian couturier Pino Lancetti.
In 1984 McDowell established his reputation as a writer with McDowell’s Directory of 20th Century Fashion, which became a standard reference work for fashion students. He became involved in teaching fashion in London (his students included John Galliano) and began writing for newspapers and magazines. In 1986 he became fashion writer of The Sunday Times.
A vocal critic of the British fashion establishment, in 2003 McDowell founded Fashion Fringe (also known as Fashion Fringe at Covent Garden), a platform for developing new fashion talent set up jointly with international management agency IMG. He remains the creative director. The competition attracts chairmen including Donatella Versace, Tom Ford and John Galliano. Winners of the competition who have gone on to become regular exhibitors at London Fashion Week include Erdem, Basso & Brooke, Gavin Douglas, Aminaka Wilmont, Eun Jeong and Jena.Theo. The 2010 winner was Corrie Nielsen.
McDowell is a former chairman of the Costume Society of Great Britain. He is a fellow of The Royal Society of Arts and has been awarded honorary doctorates and professorships by five British universities. He is creative director of the Audi Fashion Festival Singapore. In 2010 he was appointed Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art.
- McDowell’s Directory of 20th Century Fashion (1984)
- In Royal Style (1985)
- Every Woman’s Guide to Looking Good (1986)
- Shoes: Fashion and Fantasy (1989)
- Hats: Status, Style and Glamour (1992)
- Dressed to Kill: Sex, Power and Clothes (1992)
- The Designer Scam (1994)
- The Literary Companion to Fashion (1995)
- The Man of Fashion: Peacock Males and Perfect Gentlemen (1997)
- Forties Fashion and the New Look (1997)
- John Galliano: Romantic, Realist and Revolutionary (1997)
- Manolo Blahnik (2000)
- Fashion Today (2000)
- Jean Paul Gaultier (2001)
- Ralph Lauren: the man, the vision, the style (2002)
- DianaStyle (2007)
- Matthew Williamson (2010)
- A Woman of Style (1992)
- A Woman of Spirit (1993)
- "Editorial". Palatinate (99): 2. 22 February 1957. Retrieved 11 September 2018.
- [dead link]
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 31 March 2007. Retrieved 21 October 2010.
- "Colin McDowell". Journalisted.com. Retrieved 2016-04-13.
- "DANSK Daily Saturday August 14th by Jacob Petersen". Issuu.com. Retrieved 2016-04-13.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 24 September 2011. Retrieved 21 October 2010.
- "Colin McDowell and Margaret Howell awarded". Vogue.co.uk. 15 July 2010. Archived from the original on 21 July 2010. Retrieved 13 April 2016.
- "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh & Scottish Borders: Annual Review 2004". Hhw.ac.uk. Archived from the original on 13 April 2016. Retrieved 2016-03-30.