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Michael Howells: The film and fashion set designer on Instagram, working with John Galliano and Gary Cooper’s nonchalant style

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Probably the first, and the first film I worked on was The Cook, The Thief His Wife & Her Lover which had all the costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, that was my first liaison with fashion.

What pulled you into fashion?

I suppose sometimes it’s just being in the right place at the right time… one of my oldest friends is [the photographer] Mario Testino, who I have now known for 36 years, and we were all at art college. It was a very creative period, we weren’t all so obsessed with careers, it was more about experimenting and having fun… I started working with Mario and making sets for him, and he introduced me to Christian Lacroix, and then I started designing for Christian and it just sort of went from there.

How is designing a show different to working on a film?

A show is theatre, basically, and with theatre it’s much more immediate and of the moment. The thing with a show in fashion, whether it’s couture or ready-to-wear, is that you don’t have previews and you have to do it in a very intense amount of time, which I completely thrive on. I love that, but you have one chance to get it right. That’s part of the energy and the excitement.

You created the sets for Galliano and Dior shows for a number of years. Which of those stand out as special?

There is never just one that stands out… there were so many that we did that have different themes, ideas, that they were so different… working with Galliano, Lacroix, Alexander McQueen, it was always extraordinary when you see how much inspiration goes into their work. It inspires you, and you want to bring it up to a really high standard. They were dreams.

England has a reputation for being dapper, debonair, tailored… are there any cinematic characters that stand out to you, in that tradition?

I suppose the real question is "What is elegance?". It can be anything. Elegance comes from somebody being relaxed in what they wear, and actually being very comfortable with it. I think it’s very difficult to define it, it’s not necessarily a person or a three-piece suit, it’s how somebody wears things and how they carry it. In cinema, there are the greats – someone like Gary Cooper, for example, he has that nonchalant attitude that’s just natural and relaxed. I think that is what becomes elegance.

Where do you get your suits made?

All my suits are made by Martin Nicholls, on Savile Row. Being six foot seven, I have my shirts and shoes made, too… I am not your ‘average’ size.

Where do you get your inspiration from? How do you keep it fresh?

It can be absolutely anything. You can start reading a script, or get a brief for a show, and you just start thinking about it. Quite often I will see something and I will log it and think, "Oh that will be useful"; it’s just that visual dictionary in your head.

What about Instagram? You are quite prolific on that.

I got quite obsessed with clouds over the summer… I enjoy Instagram, it’s the only social media I do. I find it really inspirational.


Michael Howells is a production designer and art director working both in film and in fashion. Staffordshire- born Howells has exhibited as part of the Florence biennale and at the V&A. In 2007, he won the inaugural Isabella Blow award for fashion creator of the year. He has designed everything from Kate Moss’s 30th birthday party to Gwen Stefani music videos

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