This web site, dedicated to Jean Muir, includes a collection of press cuttings and other information celebrating the life of one of Britain's greatest fashion designers.
Lots more information can be found in the Jean Muir Archive at: National Museums Scotland.
Woman's Journal - October 1991
Beneath the facade lies warmth and an impish sense of fun. June Ducas meets the meticulous designer
Miss Muir is the world's greatest dressmaker. Miss Muir is renowned for her jersey dresses. Miss Muir uniformly wears navy blue. Miss Muir is a perfectionist. Miss Muir is a Scot. That much we know. But strangely little else, despite the fact that for the past 25 years miles of column inches have been devoted to Miss Muir and to her timeless, feminine clothes.
For Miss Muir staunchly guards her privacy. It is not a question of being secretive. She simply regards details of her childhood, family and friends as unimportant, irrelevant to her work. And work for Miss Muir (while she is doing it) is all-consuming. She approaches it with a determination that even she admits is exhausting. 'If something is worth doing,' she says, 'you might just as well do it to the best of your ability'
Such pragmatism and disdain for amateurism are second nature to Miss Muir, who never harks back to the past, but lives in the present and for the future. Consequently her clothes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. They develop subtly from season to season, rather than taking sudden changes in direction.
They are worn (indeed hoarded) by Joanna Lumley, Lady Antonia Fraser, Elizabeth Frink, Joan Plowright, Lauren Bacall, Miriam Stoppard, Patricia Hodge and Selina Scott, to name a few, and Princess Alexandra, who paid Jean Muir a great compliment saying, 'I always find that interesting people wear your clothes.' All feel confident with Miss Muir's sureness of hand, which is firmly based in a personality free from self doubt.
Contrary to how she is often portrayed, Miss Muir has an impish sense of fun and is devoid of neuroses. Unlike many fellow designers she can never, ever remember feeling insecure, in any sense whatsoever. Some years ago she was asked by the chairman of an associate company what it felt like to become successful. 'Successful?' she replied. 'But I have always been successful.'
Such assurance, along with highly charged energy, are the triggers of her fame. In conversation the shock waves of her intensity radiate. A quizzical head darts from side to side, fingers flutter excitedly and arms undulate in agitation like a dying swan as she makes her point. The diminutive Miss Muir is never still.
If she resembles anyone it is a mime artist: clownish eyebrows pencilled in; face powdered floury white; mouth liberally daubed with burnt umber lipstick, and expressive brown eyes, velvet soft. But these distinctive looks, like her clothes, have a touch of wit, revealing that she does not take the world too seriously. Even her formidable great grandmother is remembered with affectionate amusement. It delights Miss Muir that this Scots matriarch was still taking a cold bath every morning and drying herself with a coarse linen towel at the age of 75.
As a little girl Miss Muir, warned to be on her best behaviour, was taken to visit her great-grandmother in her drawing-room overlooking Regent's Park. But she did not find this awesome woman in the least bit alarming. 'I liked the idea that I had to respect her. There was an air of apprehension when I was in the presence of this stylish old lady,' she says. 'But I understood what she was about and it lifted one, as it were.'
It is her Scottish ancestry that Miss Muir believes accounts for her aesthetic eye, feel for open spaces and discipline. It also explains her puritanical streak, exceptional sense of loyalty and resolute principles. For although Jean Muir made her name in the Swinging Sixties, when she launched the Jane & Jane label in association with a fabric manufacturer, she was never part of those years and it was a decade that she disdains. In those days everybody had the feeling that they could do anything they liked, kicking over ethical traces in everything from morals to business,' she says. 'Discipline was eroded and two or three generations grew up without knowledge of what standards could be.'
Standards are very important to Miss Muir. They are her very being. She likes tidy, orderly rooms ('not obsessively so, but things in their right place, you know'), deplores dirty sheets and finds the state of London's tube despicable. And many will agree with her that the piles of rubbish on the capital's streets are ignominious. 'Why isn't there a law to ensure that restaurants sweep up their debris?'
As a mark of her concern, Miss Muir has become a member of the recently formed British Trust, a group of 23 well known people, including Clare Francis and Andre Previn, dedicated to encouraging governmental, economic and social changes which will improve the quality of life. Through studies and opinion polls they hope to be able to devise solutions.
Pre-eminence born of many accolades from the worlds of fashion and industry has also given Miss Muir the chance to speak out on subjects about which she feels strongly, especially craftsmanship and technique without which design is nothing. She was elected Royal Designer for Industry by the Royal Society of Arts in 1972 and is a fellow of both the RSA and the Chartered Society of Designers. She is also a trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum and, in 1984, was made a CBE for her services to the British fashion industry. So whether she is addressing 6,000 people from the Women's Institute at the Albert Hall, the Associates from Harvard Business School in Birmingham, a lunch for the Women of Scotland or a group about the decorative arts in Salisbury, Miss Muir always has a point of view.
Education and training, in particular, are subjects close to her heart. In the Seventies, when unemployment was rife, Miss Muir saw a despair ridden advertisement showing a youngster sitting in a dustbin, and with typical messianic zeal she wrote to the then Minister for Education, Shirley Williams, to discuss what could be done. 'I explained to her that employers could not be expected to take on young people who were ill informed and unable to spell or add up,' she says. 'Furthermore I felt the Government could help to kill off this English thing that working with your hands was only for less intelligent people. Making is the basis of a healthy society.'
Today she still pursues the topic. 'How can we preach design if we do not teach skills,' she says. She considers it a duty to give the up and coming generation, for whom she has boundless esteem, 'a firm direction and an understanding of integrity'. For her own part, she teaches craft in its truest sense to the many students employed in her workroom. 'It's only in working that you get things right,' she says.
Old fashioned good manners are another attribute Miss Muir admires. It is well known that nothing infuriates her more than people using her Christian name before being asked. 'At work everyone calls me Miss Muir and I always call my company secretary Mrs Hathaway. All my staff appreciate that courtesy,' she says.
But it would be foolish (and fools she does not suffer) to be unnerved by what might appear to be a forbidding Miss Muir, because underneath a sharp facade lies warmth and an ever present sense of the absurd.
When recently presented with an accolade for design in Paris, a sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle (male or female forms are given depending on the gender of the recipient), the statuette turned out to be the wrong sex. Nobody had told the engraver that, in English, Jean was a girl's name. 'Now if I had been a boy as my grandmother intended and named Douglas Malcolm Campbell Muir, the confusion would never have arisen.'
We must thank heaven that she was the 'fairer sex' or we might have been denied the divinely feminine clothes she fashions. Above all, the Jean Muir 'handwriting' brings out the woman in us all: liquid silk jersey, the finest suede, cashmere slipping like quicksilver over the contours of the body, the gentle drop of a shoulder line, or a slightly high waist that skims the female form.
THE WORKING WARDROBEWell designed, coordinating pieces can take you anywhere. For a casual look wear black woollen leggings with a cinnamon tunic sweater. Smarten up with a flattering black lambswool dress plus a cinnamon lambswool throw, or swap the tunic for a blockcable stitch sweater worn with a flip brim hat. Either outfit could be worn to an elegant lunch or to the theatre, while the velvet smoking jacket worn over a jersey T shirt with matching leggings is perfect for a glamorous evening.
All clothes are by Jean Muir Studio.
Photographer / Peter Brown - Hair and makeup / KarinDarnell at Pinnup
Indeed the essence of Jean Muir's clothes stems from her own femininity which, in turn, attracts her to a masculine mind. 'I enjoy the company of professional men because they are uncomplicated beings,' she says. 'I love sitting on committees with them, whether it's at the Victoria and Albert or The Design Council. Their minds are unclouded. They don't have the sort of fussiness that you will find in many women.'
Married in her early twenties to German born Harry Leuckert, whom she describes as lively and warm, a lovely mixture of continental blood, Miss Muir and her husband have a flat in Kensington and a Northumberland retreat. The latter satisfies her occasional need to be close to nature, finding it a spiritual reviver. She prizes the strength of the North and the practicality of the people.
As a contrast to the brooding moors, she loves the coolness of white in their monochrome, minimalist London home. The alabaster walls echo chalky white floors (covered in the kind of materials used in hospitals), and the snowy pillows on her bed and the bedspread edged in lace are crisply starched.
Her passion for crafts is reflected in a collection of ceramics, glass, textiles and rugs, many commissioned from artists countrywide. She and her husband are both instinctive good cooks, using the finest but simplest ingredients, and enjoy good wine or pink champagne, Miss Muir's favourite drink.
Although inordinately proud of her Scots blood, Miss Muir was, in fact, born in London at Queen Charlotte's Hospital. At the age of three she was sent to boarding school in Brighton and later finished her education at a seemly academy in Bedford. There an enthusiastic art teacher stimulated her eye by urging the pupils to buy postcards of the work of all the great painters. 'The encouragement of visual literacy in children is so important,' she says.
Nippy and small, she joined the school netball team, though her affinity for movement started at the age of five when, like every other little girl, she loved to be an elf or a fairy. 'If I ever thought I wanted to be anything, it was a dancer.'
But having left school at 17, she took a job in an electoral registrar's office
in London and quickly moved to Liberty, which she now regards as her art school.
Starting at the bottom, in the stockroom among the exotic fabrics and Oriental
artefacts, she was soon promoted to the lingerie department. Then, when it was
discovered she could draw, she went to work with the made to measure dress designer.
During this time she began to make her own clothes because, in those days,