Seeing a Margaret Howell show is one thing. Yet it’s a whole other experience to have Howell and her design heads—Rosamund Ward for women’s; Ioannis Cholidis for men’s—take you through the collection look by look, piece by piece. (And frankly it was a pretty fab experience at that.) Of course, designer show and tell isn’t exactly a rare occurrence in fashion. Studio and showroom visits are a dime a dozen.
It’s just that there’s something about a deep dive into not only Howell’s vision for fall 2023, but her whole ethos of fashion, a place where modernity and the past happily and beautifully co-exist, that reveals more than a show ever could. Get up close and personal and you’re reminded that with Howell nuance is everything. Not to mention that any given collection is part of an ongoing narrative: How many times do a designer and her team discuss whether to swap the belt loops on a skirt during the appointment? At a quick count, almost never. Yet that’s the thing: she’s fluent in a design language which is entirely comfortable with constant evolution.
For instance: This coming fall’s gesture of altering the length of one of Howell’s superlative softly unstructured jackets, denuded of any formality, which will run longer and looser for women, the better to accommodate one of her cotton shirts newly injected with a volume that’s capacious, allowing the hem to trail from underneath. (With Fall 2023 shaping up to be the Season of The Jacket—I know I’ve said that elsewhere this season, but honestly, it is—one of hers could be the way to get into the look if the idea of big shoulders is too much for you to, well, shoulder.) Kilts, the kind of traditional piece of British clothing Howell has long worked her magic with, are reimagined in black, and for men; it could be a really novel twist on black tie, perhaps, or just the thing to wear with her roomy hoodies and this fall’s update on the duffel coat.
The brilliant craft, heritage fabrics, and pragmatic and totally unselfconscious gender fluidity (the term might be recent, but Howell’s been doing it for years) are all present and terrifically correct here. That’s heightened by the way Howell chose to mix up her mainline collection with her more casual, sportier MHL line. There are ever so slightly oversized raglan sleeved coats (inspired by a design in her archive) in a plaid checked wool by the trad British fabric maker Fox Brothers; workwear and track pants in cotton woven to miraculously feel both soft and yielding but also with a pleasing crispness; and vaguely 1920s dresses with all the ease of tees which beg to be layered up every which way. The same is true of her utilitarian men’s collarless shirting, with their v-necks; actual tees, to make everything feel that bit more easy, treated to look a little lived in; and, square cut gilets in English shearling which would look good thrown over just about everything here, or more importantly, everything you’ve already got in your own closet.
Out of all this springs two thoughts. Firstly, the notion that while fashion rushes onwards, with Big Flashy Narratives to the fore, there’s something pleasing, reassuring and, frankly, inspiring, about constancy. In the harried and uncertain times we are in, it can feel like a welcome salve. And secondly, for young indie designers thinking about how to find their way in the era of global behemoths and their ever-increasing market share, Howell gives a salutary lesson in how you can start small with a clear voice and vision and last the course by staying true to yourself, growing and evolving over time. That’s true even if where you start isn’t necessarily where you end up. Gesturing to a display of cozy neutrally toned balaclavas, Howell laughed, and reminisced about how she’d started her career by knitting up purple ones herself. Purple balaclavas! It was like discovering Prince wore tweed hacking jackets when he wasn’t gyrating in panne velvet. Yet as Howell reveals season after season, even if you think you know the label, there’s always room to learn something new.