There’s a crisp dependability to Margaret Howell’s clothes that feels fresh whatever the season, but particularly during the back-to-school period of sharpen-your-pencils September. Though we were meeting in her Paris Place de la Madeleine store to parse the spring collection, the wardrobe staples that hung neatly pressed on the racks could have skipped out the door (and straight into a lecture theater) then and there. Shirts that comprise the perfect combination of crunchy but soft to the touch, precisely pleated skirts, soft-hanging jackets, waterproof ponchos—all were present and correct, infused with Howell’s relaxed charm and subtle eye for detail.
On the school uniform theme, Howell confided that as a child she loved hers, which comprised a white shirt, a V-neck sweater and a skirt. Numerous collegiate touches found their way into this offering, run through in pleasingly minute detail by her head of womenswear Rosamund Ward and head of menswear Ioannis Cholidis, from a collar on a silk shirt loosely inspired by those of Japanese schoolgirls to sweaters that had a ribbed, striped trim reminiscent of a prep school cricket team. The lookbook styling, which paired tailored shorts with knee-high socks and roomy, wide-legged jeans with a white shirt and a gently knotted silk tie, further emphasized a campus mood. Then there were the vintage Howell preoccupations: a chunky leather belt to cinch the waist of a wear-anywhere linen shirt dress, a faded pink linen scarf printed with roses. “I used to go to jumble sales and find lovely silk scarves,” Howell reminisced, softly spoken and self-effacing as ever, as she retreated to a back room with a cup of tea.
As for newness? The brand contents itself with tweaking originals from the archive and experimenting with the weight of fabrics rather than radically reinventing. Besides, as her longtime supporter Margot Henderson, the London chef and co-founder of the cult restaurant Rochelle Canteen, once said of her clothes: “You don’t wear them out; you wear them in.” Still, to the seasoned Margaret Howell shopper, there were some relative novelties: a light-weight, indigo denim shirt dress, made in Japan, with neat little black horn buttons; a delectable cotton-twill cream boilersuit with a funnel neck; a boyish checked midi skirt, styled in the lookbook with a tech-y pair of black Mizuno running shoes and a boxy cropped black jacket.
And a surprise: hanging in one corner was a brown-hued shirt dress in cotton-poplin, printed with Liberty’s Hera peacock-feather motif, with a black collar, cuffs and hem lining. “We have elements of pattern when it feels right,” said Ward. “Margaret worked with Liberty in the late ’70s and ’80s. We actually keep a lot of archive stuff, so we had all her swatch books from when she had a relationship with Liberty.” As a wildcard new-season entry, it was happily familiar.