"The only person I can think of who was comparable in their range, scope, vivacity and imagination was Cecil Beaton. But Michael is so much less of a bitch…"
Michael Howells is unique; a rare gentle giant with an encyclopedic imagination that finds and creates beauty everywhere. He blends his rich tapestry of experience with storytelling eloquence, combining empathy, wit and intellect; his extraordinary eye pulling from history, literature, art and travel like a Time Lord of creativity. To pick his favourite work he says, with a dismissive wave of the hand, is “impossible”. His film work includes a BAFTA nomination for Shackleton as well as production design on Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things and Doug McGrath’s Emma. He also built a village for Emma Thompson’s Nanny McPhee, contributed the fairytale setting of the Drew Barrymore-starring Ever After and art directed Sally Potter’s cult film Orlando. Then there’s his most recent theatrical credits - Rambert Dance Company's What Wild Ecstasy, and Ed Hall’s acclaimed Chariots of Fire. Fashion-wise, Howells’ work includes sets for Vogue, Lucinda Chambers, Nick Knight and Mario Testino, while he was the winner of the inaugural Isabella Blow British Fashion Award for fashion creator of the year in 2007.
Intimidating as this sounds, Michael is the warmest, most loyal and fascinating friend. From installations at Dover Street Market to Anya Hindmarch’s dancing handbag LFW debut, he transforms invites into must-see events. There are too many ideas, and too much to say, so it’s no wonder he’s one of the most sought after creatives in the world.
"Michael Howells is a droll paradox: so tall yet so down to earth and with a mind that is the most helpful mix of the fantastic and the practical." Doug McGrath
When we meet he has just finished filming Blackwood, with director Adam Wimpenny, and is about to start working on another dance piece with Mark Baldwin. He arrives, bang on time, a magnificent swoosh of his long coat, tailored tweed suit and bright orange scarf. Christian Lacroix describes him as “a true Londonian – belonging to Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian eras with his strong Sargent/Tissot-like profile commanding the cutting edge of now.” Certainly his deep voice, roaring laugh and exquisite taste make him all but impossible to resist. The first time we ‘properly’ bonded I was a very lowly fashion assistant, lying in a muddy field, my hand over a cowpat to protect a borrowed Manolo Blahnik. Michael leaned over the fence and gave a knowing nod. “He’s one of those British heroes,” says Lacroix, “who makes masterpieces and details have the same importance.”
That all sounds very grand, but he is very much one of the team. “Michael mucks in,” says Chariots of Fire director Edward Hall. “He doesn’t just sit in the stalls, he gets involved.” For his stage adaptation of Chariots, he asked Michael to design the costumes. “Michael was the only man for the job. Michael is very rare in the theatre; he is ferociously practical yet has an exceptional eye for detail, which is particularly important when doing period work. In Chariots we were dealing with the aristocrats of Cambridge and the Highlands of Scotland. Michael would see every single detail, every texture, so every aspect of his costumes caught the era, character and mood.” Although everything down to the last button had to be perfect. “Michael doesn’t see a problem more a solution opportunity,” Hall continues. “Chariots was something without precedent. I have never done a play with so many quick changes; we went from black tie to running clothes in five seconds. Michael not only worked out how to do this but how the costume would keep its shape.”
He only accepts the best. If a scene requires a colander it has to be the correct colander, from the correct era. If you need a bonfire for the French revolution, you won’t find Michael using English restoration furniture. With him there are no short cuts.
Self-deprecating, Michael simply shrugs, saying he’s been “phenomenally lucky”. He is also driven. Today, for example, he had a day off filming so went to the Hollywood costume exhibition with friend Sandy Powell [Oscar-winning costume designer]. While some would have simply looked at the costumes, Michael saw how different looks captured the different eras. “The dress may be Regency, but you discover it’s most definitely a 1960s version of Regency,” he says.
Michael is constantly on the lookout for new ideas. “You need to go to galleries, look at buildings, visit other countries, museums, look at artefacts and experience things that you maybe wouldn’t have considered – or wouldn’t have found if you had just typed the thing into a computer...”
Maybe Michael’s early childhood sparked this tireless quest. He was two weeks old when his family moved back to Nyasaland, and early memories of sailing from New Zealand to England, watching movies projected onto white sheets on the deck under the night stars, must have fed his imagination and love of travelling.
Then there was Blue Peter. “I remember it vividly,” he says. “I must have been about 11 and saw [production designer] Eileen Diss on the programme. She was doing a production of The Count of Monte Cristo and showing her designs and model set machetes, and explained how it went from idea to model to thing. I think it was then I realised, ‘Oh my God, I want to do that’…” Years later he met her and, typically gallant, thanked her for this pivotal moment.
He went to Camberwell, where he studied painting and, for a while, forgot about Eileen Diss and set design. “I was interested and pulled by so many forces,” he says. “I had moved on to fine art and was in a very inspiring year.” He held a few exhibitions, but then realised that “painting is very solitary and I really enjoy working with people and love that whole collaboration of ideas”. Keen to explore possible creative outlets, he “started doing small sets and productions with friends and shoots with Mario [Testino]… it just sort of started from there really, and then I realised that this is actually what I really love doing.”
For many working with Mario would mark the pinnacle of their career, but the pair have been friends, and collaborators, from the start. “I can’t remember when we actually first met… Mario came to London when we were all at college and it was just that whole group of friends, there were various camps, almost like tribes, in London at that point and we all sort of cross referenced and intermingled.”
“Michael and I have been friends for over 30 years,” confirms Mario. “I have rarely seen somebody with so much creativity, enthusiasm and resources. If anything is going wrong at a shoot, you can be sure Michael will have a solution for it. Michael is a true English old school, a million-idea-a-second, 150 jokes a minute person. I enjoy his company, his talent and his friendship enormously.”
From fashion shoots to working with the contemporary dance company DV8, Michael the glamorous route back to set design. “I wanted to do more film and theatre so I rang up Sophie Fiennes, who was working with Peter Greenaway (on The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), and I went in and started at the bottom. That was the first film I worked on… and I realised this was exactly what I loved doing.” From there came more film, more theatre and, finally, the fashion connections really started.
Mario introduced Michael to Christian Lacroix, “and I started designing his shows and from that I met John [Galliano], on a beach where I was recuperating after I’d been stabbed. We started working together; I did a show for McQueen, then when he moved to Dior we started really working together on the ‘big’ shows.” In John he had found a kindred creative spirit.
“With a film or theatre you have the script, with ballet there is the music… with John he would give you a line of poetry or a painting or photograph and that would be the inspiration you would work from.” With film there might be 8-12 weeks to do research, with John it could be eight days or less: “There’s no set formula, it’s a collaboration of ideas and trust. Most of all, it has to be heartfelt…”
Together, they created mise-en-scenes with paper butterflies exploding over Opera Garnier, cabarets, film sets and boudoirs. Howells hoisted Shalom in an origami dress onto a giant Dior chair for Galliano’s Dior 2007 Madame Butterfly collection and broke fashion conventions in advertising campaigns and shows. It’s hard for Michael to pick a favourite. After much debate he suggests perhaps the Pocahontas meets Elizabeth I show at the Gare d’Austerlitz [DIOR AW 98] “We had an entire steam-train belching blue smoke come crashing through a wall with Pocahontas strapped to the front of the steam train… it was one of the bigger opening numbers I have done…” he says without irony. Howells did steam trains long before Louis Vuitton.
Of the Galliano-Dior years he says: “Working with someone like John was incredibly inspiring. In theatre you rehearse and rehearse and rehearse; with John it’s very much about the moment. He would never rehearse - it was very much on the edge. We would plan and plot the shows, everything down to that last moment when he stepped onto the stage… it was all pre-planned but then we just went for it and we had no rehearsals! John liked that intensity, you had to concentrate, the girls had to concentrate and it created this phenomenal energy… Afterwards, you would be drained. As soon as the show was done, I would jump on the train back to London and fall asleep. After putting in so much emotion and energy you need to escape – it’s over – gone – and that whole world has just evaporated. But it’s in the ether, it’s in people’s brains and it’s in people’s memories…”
From breathtaking fashion shows to the Claridges Christmas tree collaborations, turning Beckham into a pewter “Oscar” statuette, to jobs in Asia, the Americas and closer to home, “you have to constantly prove yourself”, he says - and the variety is what keeps him inspired. When choreographer Mark Baldwin was appointed artistic director of the Rambert Dance Company he made Michael his associate designer. “Michael is the most charming and visually dynamic designer I have ever worked with in what can too often be a chromo-phobic world,” says Baldwin. “He is a joy.” It’s this passion for his work, as much as his colourful imagination and inventive interpretations, that set him apart.
“Every day brings challenge, every project there is no formula and if you rely on formula it gets stale,” he says. “Yes, it’s hard work but the rewards are fantastic. There’s nothing more exciting than live theatre, that instant response from the audience and every night it’s a different facet, a different product. When you do a film you are detached from the audience when you are making it but you have a greater lasting piece at the end so it’s a very different discipline. I think the key thing is to put your heart into what you do and enjoy it.”
In the summer Michael will resident designer at the Port Eliot festival, which is, much like his mind, “a festival of ideas”. Here you will find him in his element mixing unexpected worlds together: Kate Winslet reading children’s stories; Sam McKnight baking cakes; a fashionable WI flower show.
Michael Howells is not a fashion follower - he is inspired by a much broader world - but fashion follows him. Who knows what further collaborations are in store? “I think Mary Katrantzou is really interesting; her work is really beautiful, combining the classic with modern techniques,” he says of the designer he met at Port Eliot. Next, though, “I would like to do an opera… More stage work, more theatre … more film… who knows…” One thing is for sure - there are a queue of people wanting to work with him.