This morning, Margaret Howell gazed at the Polaroids denoting her show's running order and frowned. Yet again she was being asked to provide a sound bite to describe a collection that, for her, was not about fashion, but rather a continuing evolution of classic menswear staples: the cuffed chino, the cotton cable knit, and the boxy two-button gray blazer. "The clothes evolve gradually, and the styling brings them to life," Howell said. Today, that roughly translated as large turn-ups (also popular among the assembled audience), Boy Scout scarves knotted loosely at the throat or tucked inside fine-gauge cotton crewneck sweaters, and the occasional slouchy holdall.
Otherwise it was business as usual, and had the models decided to saunter out of Howell's Wigmore Street flagship where the show was held, they would have seamlessly blended in with the comings and goings of London's West End—no one would have batted an eye.
In the forty-odd years since Howell first started re-creating vintage men's shirts, her reluctance to jump on the fashion bandwagon has held her in pretty good stead. She's the figurehead of a sizable British business with five stores in London alone and around ninety outlets in Japan in partnership with majority shareholder Anglobal. And from a fashion standpoint, her recent hiring of an archivist (perhaps in preparation for a book?) has led her to further reexamine her design roots and feed them into her current collections. "See this shirt?" she said, pointing to a collarless Howell staple from the latest show. "It's almost exactly the same as the ones I was making in the seventies." Fast-forward four decades and although the fabrication is the same, the overall Howell silhouette has become more generous. "Those shirts were tiny. If anything, we're cutting our shapes a lot bigger today, and it seems more modern to me," she added.
Howell's take on modernity may well be rooted in tradition (the Wigmore Street store is also a great resource for books on classic mid-century design, and it has reissued British Ercol furniture from the late fifties), but unlike other London menswear brands that claim an aristocratic pedigree, her line's influences are more closely tied to the under-gardener than the baronet. The vital difference is that she makes humble pieces adapted to a modern environment. "I see what I do as urban," she said. "It's inspired by English dress, and yes, it examines our culture, but fashion shouldn't be about a historical reenactment." That said, you'll never come across a digital print or a skinny jean in a Howell collection. Her personal favorite look from today's show was an oversize gray Macintosh teamed with a white pinstriped shirt, simply because she loves the combination of sharp white and gray. And that's the Howell continuum—neither so
fashion-forward that it will burn out a season later, nor so stolid that you might as well seek out the vintage original.