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October 7th 2011
Jean Muir was an original, writes Sir Roy Strong. She seemed to spring from nowhere, a pert, small, schoolgirlish figure with immaculate straight hair framing a face which was never devoid of expression. When her passions rose high her features could assume a striking resemblance to Munch's 'The Scream'. And her passions were strong, for quality, finish, training, discipline, cleanliness, order, all ingredients she expressed in her own art, that of clothes, but ones that she regarded as fundamental to any professional career.
For her the role of creative designer and efficient businesswoman ran in tandem. She was fervently patriotic, dedicated to furthering the cause of British design, furious at Government, the art colleges, the fashion industry or anything or anybody who was seen to be responsible for any form of lapse or slip downwards in standards. Terrier like, she would nibble and nag at everything and everybody in support of the causes she championed.
As a trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum she would turn up at six in the morning to find out just how the floors were or were not cleaned. The quality of design and practicality of the cups and saucers in the new restaurant were just as important to her as the latest high-art acquisition. As Master of the Faculty of the Royal Designers for Industry she used all the strings which that office brought her to lobby for raising the level of training in design and craftsmanship upon which Britain's industrial prosperity would depend.
At any event she was an unmistakable figure, her own clothes suiting her supremely. Once I told her that only she could turn up for the Queen's Birthday Party at the British Embassy in Paris looking like, a Neapolitan widow. Like Elizabeth Arden, Jean was always "Miss" Muir, but to those privileged to know her as a friend she was a carefree loving person, blessed by a perfect marriage to Harry Leuckert. She was a vociferous reader, an avid theatregoer and gallery visitor. She adored jazz as much as she did champagne. Her pronouncements were magisterial; her enthusiasm was boundless. She treasured her privacy, denying the camera's intrusive eye into her Northumbrian home, where if the arrival of meals could be erratic, abundance and hilarity never was. Here she indulged to the full her selective eye for modern British craft pieces along with sculptures by Elisabeth Frink and paintings by Bridget Riley, both of whom wore her clothes superbly well.
Indeed, that touches her achievement, a look for the professional woman of the kind who was rising to the top from the mid 1960s onwards. Her vision depended on drape, cut and craftsmanship. She showed little interest in pattern or decoration, nor was she a great colourist. When I once asked Beatrix Miller, the former editor of Vogue, where Jean should be placed in the pantheon of couturiers, it was as the English Vionnet.
Not even her closest friends knew that she had cancer. Jean Muir was a tough and resilient Scot; the bravery that represents epitomises the courage of a woman who was never anything other than definite.