www.jeanmuir.info
Photograph, Women's Journal - October 1991
It is 25 years since the Jean Muir Label was launched Lucia van der Post takes stock

The world’s greatest dressmaker, as Miss Jean Muir is universally acknowledged to be, emits a nervous intensity of purpose that may make even the most serious interviewers feel sloppy and ill-disciplined. She it is that provides almost puritanically refined clothing of impeccable cut and fit for women, famous and not so famous, who warm to her special brand of classic pared-down chic.

Frivolous or ill-conceived questions, one senses, will not be well-received. Miss Muir as she is always, but always addressed, is in fact impeccably courteous and beautifully mannered. The hesitancy in her answers seem to have much more to do with a painstaking addiction to truth and precision than any lack of frankness.

She is very small, very delicate, very pale and is dressed from head to toe in navy-blue. Of course, Miss Muir is famous for many things. For always wearing navy blue. “It simplifies the business of dressing and packing.” For the curious way she ends almost all her sentences with an untranscribable  sound, half interrogative, half emphatic, a sort of uhuh, rising at the end.

Most of all, however, she is famous for avoiding the conceits of the world of haut couture, for disliking the word designer and preferring to be known as a maker of ready-to-wear clothing.

She sees herself above all, as a technician and dressmaking as more craft and trade than art, “Craft in its true sense,” she told a Crafts Council Conference for teachers at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “is totally necessary … only from the aesthetic point of view, but also because in the economically difficult times the products which have an innate feeling of craft and quality are the ones that suffer least. So craft is a means of survival.”

Clearly, for her, it is not just a means of physical survival but more of moral survival. She has an almost religious attitude to making and believes that “making things is a basis of a healthy society.”

She is given to quoting Ruskin “We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one man a gentleman and the other an operative, whereas the workman ought to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen in the best sense.”

For all her delicacy of presence she is profoundly practical. She is proud of the fact that she can do almost anything with her hands. She knows that clothes must first be good, that they must sell and finally, they must look good on the person who bought them.

For her commerce has never been a dirty word. Commerce is what happens when you make everything work. “Commerciality is based upon excellence,” she says.

The point about Miss Muir is not that she is an innovative, mould-breaking designer, but rather that to the business of dressmaking she brings a respect for its discipline and technique that shows in the end product. All those who wear her clothes sense this integrity of purpose. They are refined and feminine without being coy. The handwriting has a consistency that has lasted through the years but also constantly evolves. The tributes to her clothes are legion.

Lady Antonia Fraser (as she then was), once summed it up when she wrote: “A number of women who have to define themselves in public by their appearance, for a variety of different reasons, turn to her clothes with ecstasy and relief.” Her clothes are worn by women as varied as their personal styles and looks as Mirriam Stoppard, Barbara Streisand and, Lauren Bacall, Bridget Riley.

At the heart of the Jean Muir style there lies a skilful resolution of apparently irreconcilable paradox. Based on the most disciplined and an almost geometric attention to proportion the end result is fluid and rich with intuitive flair. The collections seem classic and radical, familiar yet new. They are highly fashionable and yet have nothing to do with fashion.

Miss Muir is a Scot by birth – attributing her steely addiction to work and standards to this – who has no formal training. She worked in a stockroom at Liberty when she was 15, worked in various other departments and eventually found to her astonishment that doing what she did most easily, which was having ideas, was called designing. After a stint designing for Jaeger and developing a label called Jane & Jane she finally started her own business. Jean Muir Ltd. At 22 Bruton Street in 1966, 25 years ago.

There was an episode, a few years ago, when she sold the company to Coats Paton. She doesn’t care to talk about it. Suffice it to say that after four years she bought it back. It is not, you are given to understand, that she has anything against big business, it is just that it isn’t her. All this means that nobody has much idea of how much her business is worth. The company is entirely privately owned and she effortlessly implies that talk of money and worth is not so much vulgar as beside the point. The point, of course, is making clothes as well as she can.

The only hint as to the size of the company is that there are five collections a year – two main, two studio (the same Jean Muir proportions and contours but generally in less expensive fabrics like lambswool instead of cashmere) and one resort. There are usually about 100different designs in the main collection, (where a jacket might be worth £650, a skirt £230), about 270 in the Studio collection,  (prices typically in the £150 - £400 range) and about 40 in the resort. These are sold into about 40 shops in this country, 21 in the US and a handful of exclusive shops in Germany, Australia and Ireland. Not only does she design everything herself (she starts each new collection by devoting a whole weekend to it – sitting up in bed, Churchillian fashion, surrounded by paper and her packets of Pentels) but there is no detail, whether it be a pattern, a toile, a seam a button or a belt, that is not decided by her personally. There are more than 100 people in Jean Muir Ltd, divided between Farringdon Road and Bruton Street but manufacturing is done by a hand-picked group of outworkers and small manufacturing units.

Many designers, especially designers for haute couture houses, use the main point of the clothes is to establish a brand on the back of which they can sell the scarves and the perfumes and launch an empire. For Miss Jean Muir the point of the clothes is  … the clothes. There are no Jean Muir perfumes, scarves, chocolate or restaurants.

She says: “One has to decide what one wants out of life. If I was going to be a big international designer I would have to live in New York, I am extremely happy living in this country. I like doing the things I do. If one had wanted a large business I do actually think one would have one.”

She may not be ambitious for a huge financial empire or for constant growth but she is ambitious for standards and quality and maintaining them … “That’s my raison d’etre … or to set an example if you like … and I don’t mean this in a personal sense … standards should run through life and clothes are a three-dimensional way of presenting standards – standards of taste, of quality, of discipline of integrity.

“If you set yourself up to be something then you have an absolute responsibility, in my case, to the people who are going to buy my clothes. Of course we are only human, everything we make has to pass through human hands and not everything is always perfect but it is something to aim for.”

“I’m always working against time. I oversee everything I do. I don’t know any other way of working – the overseeing part is the interesting part. I hate the word creative. I see myself as a technician. I approach my work in a very academic way – I reason it out. I’ve evolved a formula for myself, a system really like an algebraic formula.”

“I start off with basic ingredients like colour. Though people perceive my colour palette as being mainly navy and black, I love colour and every collection has quite large splashes of other colours. I work instinctively with the same materials – wool crepe made in Carlisle from Linton Tweeds which I’ve been working with for years. And jersey and suede, cashmere and lambswool.”

Shape is very important to her. Being tiny herself she has always found excess cloth uncomfortable. Hence “I have pared down shapes depending totally on structure and not on drapes or frills or extra things. I always fit the clothes on myself because that way I can feel the garment.”

She sees herself as a very technical designer and gets intense satisfaction out of the mechanics of turning her ideas into garments that please the women that buy them. Finally she lines everything up to make sure that it makes sense from every point of view. Does it make sense to the store buyer? Are the colours right? Have I covered all the shapes and sizes? Who is going to wear the clothes? Is there enough, but not too much, that is fun?

The personal involvement never stops. “The satisfaction for me is in the doing – as long as I want to go on doing it I shall go on doing it. When I don’t, I shall stop.”