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.'If you wear Jean Muir properly, people don't look at the clothes, they look at the person and say, "What a marvelous woman"
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.'I wear Jean Muir Clothes, they don't wear me. They bring you confidence, an inner sureness Mirriam Stoppard
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
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.
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,
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.”
JEAN MUIR was the most reliable name in British fashion. In the lean years of the late Eighties and early Nineties, when the idiosyncrasies of young British designers drastically damaged our reputation, there was still Miss Muir to prove that at least one Brit could produce beautiful, elegant and wearable clothes with international status.
Her remarkable career began in the Sixties, when she came to prominence with the Jane & Jane collection she designed for Susan Small. The clothes were young and modern, but never guilty of the excesses of Swinging Sixties style. Alone of the British designers of that generation, Jean Muir remained at the cutting edge of, fashion for more than 30 years.
Her disciplined approach to design was undoubtedly at the root of her staying power. She never forgot that her role was to make women look and feel confident, comfortable and elegant. The fabrics she used in those first days remained the basis for all her subsequent collections. The viscose jersey usually in her favourite navy blue, but often in black became her signature, and she crafted it into deceptively simple, easy little dresses or tunic tops and trousers. They were pieces to take you anywhere: no matter how formal or informal the occasion, you never looked over or under dressed. Women of all shapes and sizes could rely on a flattering fit that skimmed rather than gripped.
She performed the same feats with butter soft suede and leather, cutting coats and jackets with the fall and drape of satin. Wool crepe was another constant for suits. The only time her stringent good taste broke away was with her knitwear, which could appear at her (always modest) catwalk presentations in bold colour combinations, and op art patterns. Another departure was in the jewellery she chose to accessorise her clothes. She was a supporter of young jewellers, and commissioned many of them to design pieces to complement her collections.
Her spare and simple clothes provided a perfect canvas for the wearer's individual expression one reason, perhaps, that they appealed to many women with an artistic bent. They were an expensive investment, but could be worn for decades.
If Jean Muir's clothes were models of such perfection, why, I hear you ask, did they not feature more frequently on the fashion pages? Her consistency was one reason her style was established reassuring, but no longer surprising. In addition, her clothes were notoriously difficult to photograph. The two dimensional image missed the fluid movements, the feel of the fabric, the intricacy of the seaming or clever tailoring.
Miss Muir never berated hapless fashion editors for this omission. She was always available to comment or assist in any way. Yet I, like many journalists, felt a certain nervousness at interviewing her. This was primarily from respect, but also from a determination to keep the "hmms hmms" at bay. "Hmms" were Miss Muir's punctuations. They were also an indication that you were being boring.
Thousands of faithful customers will be in mourning. Jean Muir has been a force for so long it is hard to envisage British fashion without her.
When Jean Muir died 10 years ago it seemed her fashion label would surely perish with her, thanks to her husband, her loyal staff and a band of famous groupies, the house is flourishing anew.
By Drusilla Beyfus. Photographs by Ellen Nolan Jean Muir was so much her label that when she died of cancer in 1995 it seemed unthinkable that the dress business she founded in the 1960s had much of a future. Her rigorous Scottish individualism, her all-embracing ethos about dressmaking, and the way in which she personified her designs appeared to defy a follow-up. Yet through a series of unpredictable events and canny business moves, the label is emerging from the shadows. Harry Leuckert, who married Muir in 1955 and is co-founder of the business, explained the position when we met in London recently. The loss of Jean and the increasing demands of trading had pointed to the logic of shutting up shop. As he put it, 'When I told the staff that I had decided to close the business they came back and said, "Please give us a chance. We can do it." And that was how it happened.' Two other options had been rejected out of hand by him, namely to sell the company - 'Never, ever!'- or to hand over to a known designer to carry on the label. One poignant fact worked in favour of continuity. Looking back. Leuckert believes that the in-house team were strengthened during the final months of Muir's illness when they had to learn to manage without the designer's usual total involvement.'It was a form of trial period for what awaited.'
After a period of uncertainty, the continuing collections evoked an almost audible sigh of relief from Muir's well-known loyalists. The theatre dames Diana Rigg and Judi Dench wear Jean Muir both on and off the boards. Julie Walters chose the label for her appearance at the Billy Elliot film premiere (and wore a Muir design in BBC2's modern-dress Chaucer production The Wife of Bath) on the basis that, 'Jean Muir is beautifully cut, simple, flattering and elegant.' As Lady Antonia Fraser once put it, 'A number of women who have to define themselves in public by their appearance... turn to her clothes with ecstasy and relief.'
Rachael Stirling, Diana Rigg's actress daughter, says she puts on Jean Muir when her role is to look glamorous. Stella McCartney is known to slip into vintage Muir from time to time. When Sienna Miller was required to hit a 1960s sartorial note yet retain her Notting Hillbilly bohemian aura in the movie Alfle, it was a Jean Muir that came to the rescue. And it's to the point that the former long-serving editor of Vogue, Beatrix Miller, shares an admiration for the designer with the present editor, Alexandra Shulman. The creative reach of the label is interesting, too - some of the reigning younger names in fashion, such as Hussein Chalayan, are influenced by Muir's ideas while several have commented on an affinity between the designer and the hugely successful (and hugely copied) Marc Jacobs.
However, what wearers really go for is that Jean Muir is essentially a long-life product. Joanna Lumley, an undisguised Muir groupie, picks up on that aspect in her recently published autobiography, No Room for Secrets: 'Over the years I collected them and wore them again and again. There is a huge suitcase full of Jean Muirs in the spare room.., so that one day I can get them out and wear them as retro chic. Not so retro either, many look as beautiful now as they did then.' Lumley's experience is shared by the former house model Tamsin de Roemer, now a fashion designer in her own right, who says she still wears a jacket made by her mentor in the mid -1990s, which she teams with jeans, boots and a T-shirt. 'I also have two cashmeres with holes, which I can't resist wearing.'
Clients old and new rallied, but the business side took a nasty knock or two in the post-Jean era. The United States market, which accounted for a third of the annual £3 million turnover for Jean Muir Ltd. dropped out of the calculation on the death of its namesake. And Muir's formerly much sought-after and lauded minimalist outfits at Bergdorf and Bloomingdales lost their place in the spotlight. Worse was to follow. Jaeger, with its three main outlets in King's Road, Regent Street and Knightsbridge, and which had stocked Jean Muir prominently since 1989. decided to pull out of its contract with the business. The deal was worth between 40 and 50 per cent of the company's turnover. 'The then new-broom management of Jaeger decided there was no room for two labels in the company,' Leuckert recalled. Furthermore, Selfridges, in a draconian edit of its regular stockists, dropped the label. Seeking new retail territory, the house approached Harrods but I as Leuckert said, 'We got nowhere.'
A response from base camp was overdue. This took the form of expansion, retrenchment and restructuring. Plans were made with the knowledge that, despite the loss of sales in certain outlets, various factors had conspired to keep the turnover stable at £3 million, with one exception. 'Nineteen ninety-six was a bad year but 1997 was a boom year in which our turnover increased from £3 million to £3.6 million.' the newly appointed managing director, German-born 28-year-old Nicolas Steineke, told me. 'Perhaps our customers thought it was the last chance to buy Jean Muir. Now the figure has settled again at about £3 million.'
Opening a shop with its own front door represented the big push forward, a move long on Muir's wish list. The project was realised at Conduit Street last summer, with new neighbours including Vivienne Westwood and the earnestly hip B Store. Simultaneously, a decision was taken that the business would move out of the elegant showrooms at Bruton Street which it has occupied since 1955, at a date yet to be finalised. So it will be goodbye to memory lane, with recollections of innumerable collections launched amid bowers of fresh white flowers, at the finales of which the diminutive figure of Muir would appear, clad in her virtual house livery of navy blue - whatever the shades launched on the runway. 'Bruton Street has become an irrelevance. It's over and we must move forward,' Leuckert said firmly. The plan is for Conduit Street to become the company HQ, incorporating the retail shop, the wholesale showrooms and the offices. The design team - of whom more later work out of Clerkenwell.
Jean Muir's spirit stalks the shop. Customers enter through a monumental, minimalist glass door which is a beautiful artefact in its own right. The all-white space (1,800 sq ft) has the air of a swish art gallery. Flooring is of Tessos marble, and the use of mirrors and burnished steel in the decor together with a rarity in the neighbourhood, a flood of natural light, makes it all seem a bright harbour. Yet it is a selling place. first and foremost. The sizing range of the collections has been extended to include sizes 16 and 18, though customers may have to ask for these as they are sometimes not put out. Pricepoints are at the lower end of international designer label merchandise, but the word lower in this context is relative. Examples are a cashmere and silk sweater, from £335, a satin button-through dress, £630; a tweed top coat, from £775; an Orient brocade coat, £995; a nappa leather jacket. from £1,080.
Leuckert is particularly keen on his insistence on upping the standard of customer service to the extent of offering shoppers a drop of restorative hospitality. He tells the story of the time when he had to deal with a totally shopped-out husband who was accompanying a wife clearly in for a long haul at the shop. He suggested tea, coffee, both politely refused, but when he came up with the offer of something stronger plus the daily papers and a comfy chair, that was nearer the mark. 'The husband told me, "This is so much nicer than being dragged round Selfridges", and paid up for his wife's indulgence with a smile.'
'We opened without any razzmatazz and the shop has been a success from day one.' Leuckert added. Costs have been self-financed without need to borrow capital. On present form, the venture has worked well enough for the company to be talking about a second 'stand-alone' shop. 'The Conduit Street shop will compensate us for the Jaeger losses,' Nicolas Steineke said. 'Jaeger did express an interest in a further dialogue but by then we had opened our shop.' The broader retail picture has perked up considerably. Selfridges is stocking the spring/summer collection in a 'dedicated space'. Anna Garner. head of fashion at Seifridges. says, 'We didn't do justice to Jean Muir before. The modern atmosphere of their new shop is what we like and how we want to present her.' Harrods has come in as well.
Quite how this high-end fashion house works on the creative side without a leader is a mystery best explained by the belief that ghosts can deliver. Technically, the task of putting together a new collection is done by an in-house team of four women who were trained by Muir and who have virtually osmosed her thinking and are adept in her methods. I met the disciples where the designing gets done at the company's Clerkenwell premises and found them in mid-preparation for the autumn/winter '05 collection. Broadly, responsibilities divide along the following lines, allowing for the fact that much stress is laid on mutual discussion and consensus. Joyce Fenton is chief designer. Angela Gill does knitwear. Caroline Angell is pattern cutter and toiliste (she first cuts the cotton toile and then repeats the shape in the form of a paper pattern to send to the manufacturer). Sinty Stemp, who has been with the cornpany for 17 years, is the fourth member. She read history at university, is now head of wholesale, and deals with the store buyers who keep the label's order book in good nick.
Jean Muir's sketchbooks and samples from past collections are a fund of inspiration, but the team balk at any implication that they do copies. Their take on the matter is that the skill lies in adapting and interpreting such Jean Muir lines that are relevant to what's going on now. And who decides on that. I asked. We were back to discussion and consensus. A small clue on the matter came from Stemp.' We always ask whether we would wear a proposed shape or pattern ourselves. Our personal view does count. We will also bear in mind what a particular store buyer might do well with.'
'We are not a label about a label,' she elaborated. 'Miss Muir would never do a theme collection or say we are going to do a pirate collection. We make clothes for an individual. If Jean Muir had a muse it was the female body. Her clothes always have an element of femininity.'
Joyce Fenton explained. 'Miss Muir had a signature way of making clothes and we try to follow that. For example, our jersey dresses are made by one person, on one machine and the dress will have top stitching [a needlecraft skill].' Stemp chimed in with the observation that it takes the manufacturer several days to make one of their jersey dresses.
I watched the Muir collective working with a 'storyboard' for colours and fabrics for the next collection. The board displayed scraps of materials in different weights. weaves, colours, patterns. Snippets of vintage Jean Muir fabrics sat beside pieces of currently fashionable brocade; there was tweed woven with as many as half a dozen different types of thread, including one combining wool and ribbon. Fenton was choosing a mixture of materials as a guideline to send to the fabric makers to interpret.
Working closely with the label's suppliers remains a linchpin of the production process for the team. They like to work with people who know their standards, Fenton said pointedly. Linton Tweeds of Carlisle is a specialist weaver that supplies fabric for the house, a connection that has lasted for 25 years. Linton has its own facilities for dyeing, and makes one-offs and exclusives for Jean Muir, and also for Chanel. The Muir team will submit the sample fabrics I saw being selected and the Linton team consisting of a design director, Robert Irvine, and two designers - will work on the Muir suggestions and come back with their realisation. If need be, the two teams keep going with revises until they come up with the answer.
In addition to the new stuff, the vogue for vintage detail has done its bit towards sustaining the reputation of the label. 'Sometimes we will get out some vintage designs and are reminded of something special such as beautiful beading or a detail and incorporate that,' Stemp said. The market for old pieces seems limited only by a shortage of product. Fiona Stuart, a partner in the west London shop Rellik, a hunting ground for the likes of Kate Moss, says, Original buyers hang on to Jean Muir for dear life. Our customers like the 1970s and 1980s styles when we can get them, and the 1960s too, but those are the rarest of all.' Prices at Rellik are in the low hundreds.
Aspects of the saga suggest an application beyond this specialised luxe company. A small-scale, tightly run ship can retain its identity among the giants in retailing (Jean Muir has only 20 full-time employees on the books). A policy of doing what you do best and leaving the rest to the others may be more effective than diversifying. Clothes that reveal their best qualities to the wearer but which don't always do justice to themselves in fashion photography have a place in the pantheon. As to the over-arching onsideration of the wisdom of running a creative house without the living hand of a leading designer, the jury is out on the long term. But, to date, it appears that a good reputation is an abstract replacement.
However, it would be unjust to describe Harry Leuckert as an abstract force. Born to German parents, he has emerged from self-imposed shadows over the years. Declaring that he feels 'tremendously positive', he has jumped to it in a manner that is not wholly in character for a man who openly avows a preference for the 'gone fishing' option. His affection for retreating to his country house in Northumberland with its garden and access to fishing rights and a shoot, his finca in Spain, and the absence of mobile phones and e-mails in his daily routine have done little to unseat that image. But in practice the updated Leuckert is closely involved in the present phase of the company. along with his new family. His daughter, Friederika, is running the Conduit Street shop; she is married to Nicolas Steineke. Leuckert has married the mother of his daughter. Within the intense partnership of his former marriage, it was no secret that Harry had his own life and interests. He spoke to me of Jean like this: 'We loved each other very much. We were very close emotionally and creatively.' Few will doubt he has done right by her to keep the legend alive and kicking.
IF Jean Muir, that inimitable maker of ineffably elegant clothing, were alive today I think she'd be pretty pleased. There, at 48 Conduit Street, just off London's Bond Street painted in pristine white (a colour of which she most definitely would have approved), is a shop dedicated to clothes designed within the rigorous aesthetic that defined her style. There, hanging on the rails, are the sort of clothes that her fans used to know and love - the signature soft jerseys, the supple suedes, the punched-leather gilets and jackets, the refined wools and silks, the deceptively simple lines that were the hallmark of her label. It is now some nine years since Jean Muir died, but her style is alive and well.
After her death a team of four women designers, who had all worked under the formidable Miss Muir - strictly trained in her disciplined ways, with the DNA of her label, so to speak, branded into their being- went on producing a Jean Muir range, but it was sold only in department stores such as Harvey Nichols. This is the first time that there has been a shop dedicated solely to the Jean Muir collection.
To some, the name Jean Muir may not resonate very loudly, but in certain circles, among women of a certain age, just the merest mention of it awakens memories of the days when she was one of the best-known dressmakers in the world. Many of these women still have the Jean Muir clothes they bought all those years ago, for they have a way of never dating. Those who are too young to have known her clothing in its heyday may be surprised to learn that there was a time, not that long ago (the 70s a 80s), when no fashionable British woman considered her wardrobe complete unless it included at least one Jean Muir classic.
And it wasn't just in Britain that she was so admired. When she Showed in Paris in 1972 even the French raved. 'Jean Muir's dresses have scored a triumph,' declared one fashion editor. They are the most beautiful in the world.' Another designer, a M Chakkal, declared that he had decided to offer no dresses that season, because 'what she does is absolute perfection'
Miss Muir, as she was known to everybody, except possibly her husband Harry Leuckert, started making clothes when attitudes to clothing were changing radically. Couture was becoming too expensive for all but the very rich. Women were becoming more and more active in the workplace. Clothes needed to be more comfortable, so that women could travel and work in them yet still look smart. Couture, on the whole, didn't do that. Jean Muir did. And she did it elegantly.
She was among the first to produce ready-to-wear clothes with a couture aesthetic. The fabric, the cut, the finish and the detailing were all as fine as she could make them. At lest, as one high-end retailer of the day put it, here were ready-to-wear clothes that 'a millionaire's daughter could wear'. In other words, they might have been available off-the-peg but the quality wasn't compromised. Today that may not sound something to sing about. but beck then it was exceptional.
Jean Muir is one of those designers who developed a strong signature line from the beginning. She was incapable of vulgarity or showmanship, ether in her personal or working life. Her label was pure, deceptively simple. It evolved, of course, but it never shocked or became perverse.
Much of the charm of Jean Muir clothes lies in the tension between the apparent severity and technical skill of the cut (she often described her cutting-room technique as 'engineering in cloth') and the sensuality inherent in the way they cling to the anatomy and swing as the wearer moves. She never, so far as I remember, described herself as a fashion designer. Nor did she ever seem part of the razzmatazz of the fashion world. She gave the impression of being a bit apart, aloof and above the fray. Not that she had any airs and graces. It was more that she had an inner certainty about what she was doing and she saw no need to look around and see what others were doing.
From the beginning - she started her own label in 1966, having worked for Jaeger, Liberty and Courtaulds before that - her clothes reflected a profound understanding of the qualities of the fabrics she used. She had discovered when she was very young that she had a sense of how things should be shaped and formed, and she started to make her own clothes when she was just 15. It was the clarity and consistency of her vision that made her label so distinctive. All through her 30 years in business something of her style remained unswervingly recognisable. She evolved with the times, but she remained resolutely Jean Muir throughout. She did 'little' dresses to perfection. Her colour palette tended to be sombre, but every now and again she would surprise with a brilliantly coloured cashmere cardigan or jumper.
She never did the outrageous, show-stopping number; her models never bared their thighs. Nor did she ever do 'cute'. She designed seriously grown-up, elegant clothes for the sort of worsen with whom she empathised - women with minds and ideas; intellectuals. artists, actresses. The roll call of those who wow and loved her clothes is long and distinguished. Joanna Lumley, who began her career as a ,Jean Muir house model, declared herself 'addicted', part of the reason being that 'her clothes last for ever'. The television presenters Selina Scott and Joan Bakewell, Anna Ford and Emily Maitless, the joumatiat Felicity Green, actresses such as Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, Britt Ekland. Sylvia Kristel, Charlotte Rampling, Julie Walters, Ractirael Stirling and her mother Diana Rigg, and models such as Saffron Aldridge were and remain fans.
Jean Muir always described herself as a dressmaker, believing that she was first and foremost a craftswoman - disciplined, skilled and dedicated. Very early on she developed a uniform that she felt simplified her life and suited her aesthetic approach to clothing. Rather like Chanel before her, she fell in love with jersey and she had it made up into the navy blouses and wide navy trousers that she took to wearing every day. In all the years I knew her - though I never knew her well, I did know her for a long time - I never saw her wear anything but navy blue or wear her hair anything but short and slicked back behind the ears. Her foundation was a matt beige and her lips deep magenta. It's as if, having found a way of dressing that suited her, she was left free to think about the clothes she made for others. Her life, like her clothes, was concerned with the elimination of the inessential.
She was, in essence, a minimalist long before the word had become common currency. The large flat near London's Royal Albert Hall that she shared with her husband Harry was famously painted and furnished entirely in white. For somebody with such classic ways with clothes, her taste in interiors was surprisingly avant-garde, and the house she and her husband created in Northumberland was famously filled with the work of cutting-edge craftspeople of the day. She believed passionately in the importance of artist-craftspeople and saw their renaissance as one of the most exciting movements in late 20th-century design.
She always said that she wasn't interested in the past. 'I'm a now and future person,' she told an interviewer who asked one too many questions about a retrospective exhibition of her work. She'd be proud of the shop today, I believe. The spirit of Miss Muir is there. It's a shop where those who have never tried a bit of the Jean Muir way with cloth may be surprised by the seductive charms of her sinuously elegant lines. The polished tweed jackets, the beautifully worked suede and leather coats and gilets, the silkily sexy blouses, the deep-dyed jersey dresses, the sumptuous coats and knitwear contrive to be both very much in the mood of today and very much in the spirit of Jean Muir. It is a 'now and future' shop. Yes, I think Miss Muir would definitely approve.
She was adored by the Paris fashion industry and could count royalty and stars among her clients. But the life of one our most popular designers was shrouded in mystery, reports Gillian Bowditch It is a paradox so entertaining it could stage its own cabaret. Jean Muir – one of Britain's most important 20th-century fashion designers, whose company celebrates its 40th anniversary this year – built her career from the antithesis of fashion. Everything about her, even the clothes she wore, seemed to militate against her career.
"Miss Muir didn't like to be thought of as a fashion designer," says Joanna Lumley, who became one of Muir's house models in 1964. "She saw herself as a dressmaker. She was an incredible stickler for accuracy. If there was a piece of stitching slightly off, out it would come. We all adored her, but we were also quite afraid of her."
With her trademark Louise Brooks bob, chalky complexion, damson lipstick and unrelenting navy uniform, Muir used her dramatic personal style as a mask behind which she hid an intensely private and sometimes painful life.
Although she died 11 years ago at the age of 66, her international renown – the French knew her as "la reine de la robe" – lives on. Miles of column inches have been devoted to her understated but exquisite tailoring, but the details of her life are sketchier than the drawings that heralded each new collection. No biography has been written of her.
A vision as focused as a high-precision telescope runs, thread-like, through the clothes. "Evolution, not revolution" was her philosophy. But Muir's life is an intriguing storyboard of contradictions.
Now one of the most beguiling – her claim to be Scottish – has secured her remarkable archive for the nation. Donated to the National Museums of Scotland by Harry Leuckert, her husband and business partner, the Jean Muir Archive runs to 18,000 individual items, including patterns, toiles, accessories and finished garments. It is believed to be the largest and most complete archive of a fashion designer in a museum collection anywhere in the world and could have fetched hundreds of thousands of pounds at auction.
As a resource for designers and students, it is priceless and a coup for NMS, not least because Muir was a trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
"It's not just the scale of the collection, but also the fact it shows the entire working process," says Fiona Anderson, curator of textiles at NMS, which is planning a big Muir exhibition in 2008. "That is so appropriate, because she was known for her technical skills. Her work wasn't just some airy-fairy notion of creativity. It is an incredibly valuable resource and is internationally significant. We are thrilled to have it."
In the offices at the top of the museum, Anderson has laid out a series of Muir's sketches, patterns, toiles and accessories for The Australia Collection, designed to celebrate that nation's bicentennial in 1988. A riotous blue, grey and yellow felt jacket decorated with brooches hangs beside more restrained dresses of the kind for which Muir was renowned.
"Jean Muir was a founder member of the National Museums of Scotland and involved with the fundraising process," says Anderson. "But more fundamentally, although you have to go back several generations to get to her Scottish roots, she felt her cultural identity very strongly."
"She had a great passion for Scotland," says Lumley, who remained a close friend and was one of only two clients for whom Muir did private fittings. (The other was Princess Alexandra.) "She loved the tweed industry and the knitwear. She couldn't bear dilettantes and identified with Scottish craftsmen. I remember her coming back from Scotland with armfuls of beautiful, lacy knitwear, which she adored."
Muir was known by some as the "Scottish Chanel", but she could just as easily have been fashion's Miss Jean Brodie. There was something Sparkian about her voracious appetite for books, her scholarly mind and sense of theatre – she was a blue stocking, literally and metaphorically. She was also a perfectionist who revelled in her reputation as the crème de la crème of dressmakers. She identified with the Protestant work ethic, but her Calvinism was combined with a romantic notion of the Scots as an artistic race.
"She often talked about her Celtic blood and was proud of the fact she wasn't an Anglo-Saxon," says Sinty Stemp, head of marketing and press for Jean Muir. "She felt she had been born with a very creative eye and that the Celts were an artistic race. She attributed her steely drive and independence to her Scottish roots."
In fact Muir, who was self-taught, was born in London in 1928 and went to a girls boarding school in Bedford, where she learned to sew. Her first job in textiles was with Liberty as a stockroom assistant, but her artistic eye and nimble fingers meant she was quickly promoted. Before setting up the now defunct label, Jane and Jane, part of the Susan Small Group, she designed for Jaeger. In 1966, with Leuckert's backing, Jean Muir Ltd was founded.
You have to go back to her great-grandparents to find the link with Scotland. Her paternal great-grandfather, RC Muir of Elderslie, was an engineer and "pioneer of the frozen meat trade". He left Scotland for London in 1887.
But just as Muir's notion of nationality had little to do with borders, so her idea of fashion had nothing to do with trends. She used the word as a verb, not a noun.
"She was aware of trends, but they didn't deflect from her style," says Stemp. "She brought the discipline of the couturier's atelier to ready-to-wear. Her clothes had great integrity. They are very feminine, but not aggressive or cloying. They move beautifully on the body. Her signature look is quickly identified, but it never shrieks you are wearing 'a label'."
Lumley still has a large suitcase of Muir's designs, many with the handmade silver or Perspex buttons commissioned from young British craftsmen that were a feature of her work. "She loved the deliciousness of beautiful things," says Lumley. "I remember working for her in the 1960s on the fourth floor of her studio in Great Portland Street and she was just enchanted by this beautiful Indian printed silk. I still have a little Jane and Jane dress made of Liberty print silk. Those clothes are very difficult to come by now and that particular dress ended up in the Imperial War Museum in an exhibition entitled From the Bomb to the Beatles."
Muir's longevity as a designer at the top of her game for more than 30 years is unrivalled in the British fashion industry. Along with Biba and Mary Quant, her clothes defined the 1960s. When Sienna Miller needed to exude Sixties' sophistication in the remake of the film Alfie, it was to Muir she turned. Vintage Muir now sells for hundreds of pounds.
"Skilful cutting was something she was known for," says Anderson. "If you look closely at a very simple little black dress, you see all these amazing details and clever ways of cutting that make it sit beautifully on the body."
Muir inspired loyalty and trepidation in her staff in equal measure. "She was tiny," says Stemp, "but she had an aura. She was always dressed in navy blue and was so neat and fastidious."
Sir Roy Strong, who knew Muir through her work at the V&A, says: "When her passions rose high, her features could assume a striking resemblance to Munch's The Scream."
"Everyone called her Miss Muir," says Lumley. "It was ages before I felt I could call her Jean. She was like Dame Ninette de Valois [who founded the Royal Ballet] in that she inspired natural courtesy. She always dressed in navy blue with navy blue stocking and neat little shoes. But she had an incredible youthfulness. People just adored her."
For women of a certain age and stature, her clothes were a godsend. It was to a Jean Muir dress that Camilla Parker Bowles turned for the raspberry evening gown she wore on the night her engagement to the Prince of Wales was announced.
Lumley recalls salon sales at which actresses and aristocrats would "strip down to their underwear" and rummage through racks of end-of-season bargains. "She was enormously good fun," says the actress, "and she had a very eclectic group of friends. Jazz was always played at her shows. She was the coolest of the cool."
But even to her friends she was a riddle, an enigma wrapped in a navy jersey dress. "I have no idea where she stood politically," says Lumley. "She had a very wide range of interests and tastes. I remember her and Harry taking me to a Danny La Rue show. She was so secure in her style that she never felt threatened by trends."
Muir's all-white flat behind London's Albert Hall, where visitors had to remove their shoes for fear of marking the white rubber flooring, was renowned for its minimalism. Few knew of her bolt hole in Northumberland, which was crammed full of books, colourful rugs and antiques. There she swapped the navy blue uniform for country clothes. "It was the absolute polar opposite of the London flat," says Lumley.
But perhaps the biggest mystery of all was her marriage. Muir married Leuckert, an actor born in Germany, in 1955. They had no children. What is not widely known is that her husband, who remains chairman of the company, had another family in Germany. After Muir's death he married Ingrid, the mother of his daughter, Friederika. She was born in 1976 and although she never met Muir, she now runs the Jean Muir shop in Conduit Street, central London. Her husband, Nicolas Steineke, 29, is the managing director.
"My father-in-law married my wife's mother," says Steineke. "He is also her natural father. My wife and I grew up in Germany until 1996. We didn't know Miss Muir. We came over here after her death."
Friends are in no doubt Leuckert adored Muir and it was an intense partnership. "We loved each other very much. We were very close emotionally and creatively," is the only public statement he has made on the relationship, which Strong described in Muir's obituary as "the perfect marriage".
If Muir knew of Friederika's existence, she didn't speak of it and her friends remain loyal to her wish for privacy. Muir's great love was her work. It was no secret among their close circle that Leuckert, who shunned the limelight, had his own life and interests.
According to Steineke it is Leuckert who is responsible for preserving the remarkable archive and whose foresight meant most of it was in pristine condition.
He also steered the business through financial ups and downs in the 1970s and 1980s, when a stake was sold off to the textile group Coates Patons and then bought back.
"It is a very fickle industry," says Steineke. "Miss Muir built up an extreme loyalty over 40 years. She was not really interested in the whims of fashion. But there were recessions, a number of fairly volatile phases."
Her loyal band of customers saw none of this, however, just collection after collection of enduring, tasteful, unmistakable clothes. That was the Muir "genius".
"Jean Muir was very discreet," says Lumley. "She didn't talk about personal matters. We knew Jean had illnesses and operations, but we didn't know what they were and she never spoke of them. No kind of feebleness was permitted. Her death came as a great shock."
Muir died from breast cancer on May 28, 1995. She had entered hospital two days earlier complaining of feeling unwell. "Only the inner circle knew of it and she stayed at work till the end," says Steineke. "The medical condition had only been diagnosed a fortnight or three weeks earlier and the treatment was unsuccessful. It all happened very quickly."
"Her death was an incredible shock to everybody," says Stemp. "We knew she was having some treatment and then she didn't come back from the treatment." It may be that Muir had some idea of the fragility of her health. In the period before she died she gave her trusted team of designers greater responsibility and freedom.
"We know the Jean Muir signature details and shape and we've had the archive to work from," says Stemp. "She was such a presence."
A decade after her death, Muir lives on in the clothes she fashioned. And because of the foresight and generosity of Leuckert and his secret second family, a century from now her fabulous legacy will live on in the National Museums of Scotland.
Shorts - Fashion is a stubbornly one-way street. Despite the efforts of Vivienne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gaultier to get them into skirts, men just won't wear women's clothes. Yet many women wear nothing but items of dress from the male wardrobe. It's hard to believe that only 50 years ago, such things were for only the boldest and most exotic females. Is there a fashionable woman anywhere who doesn't have at least one pair of jeans?
Surprisingly, however, shorts are a different story. No doubt because they are normally worn by men only in casual circumstances - city suits with shorts have totally failed to catch on, despite the hopes of menswear designers they are still sometimes considered by top hotels to be a little too relaxed to be acceptable in quite the same way as skirts or trousers. This is as sad as it is absurd. Every summer, the world's designers have demonstrated that shorts can be casual and glamorous - as illustrated in this 1975 picture of Joanna Lumley wearing Jean Muir culottes - demure and sexy and fabulously flattering. Or, depending on the cut, just the opposite. They can be short or long, and they can come in every fabric or colour - from plain to florals and checks. And this summer, they are going to be so ubiquitous that they are the No 1 must-have. If you buy a pair in white, then you've cracked this year's other essential, too.
Always referred to by her staff as Miss Muir, Jean Muir was not nearly as frightening as her demeanour led people to believe. She was actually nothing more alarming than a perfectionist and a stickler for detail - qualities that, even before her death in 1995, were being binned by the fashion world as far too boring and demanding to be taken seriously. Cutting corners is so much easier - and, after all, who'll notice, or care?
It is fair to say that Muir would loathe modern fashion. Its meretricious preoccupation with celebrity, its lack of ethical standards and taste, and its obsession with ugliness and vulgarity would make her raise her eyebrows quizzically. She would then laugh and get on with what really mattered to her, which was her own highly individualistic work.
What would most amaze her is the ease with which people can declare themselves designers today. For Muir, anyone who called themselves a designer had to learn the trade in the trade, rather than at art school, which she rightly viewed with a certain scepticism. Her own career started in the stock room at Liberty, the store where she claimed to have learnt the business from A to Z. She progressed to selling, had a stint at fashion drawing and started designing for her first label, Jane & Jane, in 1961. Her clothes, often in jersey or fine wool, were triumphs of minimalist style, bucking the seasonal fancies she found so irrelevant.
Muir's private customers included exemplars of understated taste such as Lauren Bacall and Charlotte Rampling. And there was hardly a fashion journalist in the 1980s and early 1990s who didn't have, as her most precious possession, a Muir design in her wardrobe.
Probably the most sophisticated designer ever to work in London, Muir - whose Jean Muir label celebrates its 40th birthday this year - was the antithesis of the hype that today's designers often appear to consider more important for furthering their careers than actually learning the ropes of their trade. Jean Muir was the consummate professional.
As the Jean Muir label celebrates its 40th birthday, do its designs still appeal to women today? Tina Gaudoin took four readers to find out.
Was Jean Muir the British Chanel? Certainly, the fiercely proud, self-taught Scot was the first British designer to persuade the women of Blighty of the flattering benefits of the little black jersey dress. That dress became Muir's signature, but her skills extended far beyond the ability to engineer jersey so that it rippled across the body. Muir's soft, simple, elegant style won her plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic. In Paris, where she showed in the early Seventies, she was crowned La nouvelle reine de la robe, quite a triumph for a Scottish girl whose father was a soldier turned chiropodist.
Although she died in 1995, the legend of Jean Muir, CBE, lives on. Her company, still run strictly along the lines she dictated, has a glamorous store on London's Conduit Street, her clothes are stocked in upmarket department stores worldwide and still manufactured in the UK. But do Jean Muir clothes still have the same pizzazz they had when artists, models, pop stars and actresses took her to their hearts in the Sixties and Seventies? Are they still meaningful to the women of today? This month, as the company celebrates 40 years in fashion, and a book, Jean Muir: Beyond Fashion is published, we let four readers loose in Selfridges (with the assistance of style director Tina Gaudoin) to test actress Joanna Lumley's theory that every woman should have a Jean Muir in her wardrobe.
On a boiling hot summer's day I'm standing in the cool white interior of the Jean Muir boutique. I am in my knickers, and the manager, Friederike Steineke, is placing garments on a rail for me.
As someone who had always thought the name Jean Muir to be synonymous with navy, I am surrounded by a riot of colour: hot pink, turquoise and soft gold.
I tell Friederike, who is German-born but has the face of a Brazilian supermodel, that I need an outfit to take me from Ladies' Day at Ascot to a country wedding in the Peak District in July, and I can see she is a woman who likes a challenge.
She drapes a soft Linton tweed (from Carlisle), blush-pink jacket and swing skirt in my arms. Every detail is exquisite, from the silver leaf buttons (made by a jeweller) to the hand-sewn silk bias binding at the waist. This is a garment that will last a lifetime, but with a price tag of around £1,000 is a fraction of the price you would pay for couture.
Even though Jean Muir was accepted alongside all the more innovative designers who made up Swinging London, such as Mary Quant and Foale & Tuffin, she always made clothes that were for grown-ups, not adolescent girls: rare then and even rarer now.
And although the designs seem timeless, there is no hotter label than Jean Muir to be seen in this year, not only because it is celebrating its 40th birthday, but because women are starting to reject the idea that fashion should always be disposable, and now want something unique that can be handed down to their daughters.
Sienna Miller - whose favourite piece of clothing is a vintage Muir purple suede cape -Kate Moss and Stella McCartney are all fans.
'Miss Muir', as she preferred to be addressed, set up shop in the autumn of 1966 having learned her trade as a dressmaker (she hated the term 'designer')
She died of breast cancer in 1995 at the age of 67. But handling one of the black suits in her signature wool crepe or a jersey dress with Georgette sleeves, it is as if she really went away.
Although she and her husband Harry Leukert, whom she married in 1955, never had children, the fact the label is still family-owned is much in evidence.
Friederike is Harry's 30-year-old daughter; after Muir died, he married Friederike's mother, Ingrid. Muir knew about the existence of a daughter, but they never talked about her in public. And although Friederike never met Jean Muir, she and her husband Nicolas, now the MD of the company, moved to London after she died.
Friederike says that her father "has always told me so many stories about her, I feel I know her so well. And, of course, I always wear Jean Muir because the clothes are never overtly sexy, but rather subtle and sensuous.
"They move beautifully on the body. I wore it at my wedding," she smiles, smoothing a pretty print skirt over the bump that signals the arrival of her first baby, due in November.
And the four-strong design team - Joyce Fenton Douglas, Angela Gill, Caroline Angell and Tracy Joyce - were all trained by Muir and have been with the company for more than 20 years.
I pick up a jersey dress that moves like mercury between my fingers and it turns out it was made, from start to finish, by Joanna Leonidas, the seamstress who has been making them for Miss Muir since 1964.
To celebrate 40 years in business, the family has donated 18,000 items - sketches, patterns, toiles, garments - to the National Museums of Scotland, and a big Muir exhibition is planned for 2008.
The collection for spring/summer 2007 will raid the archives and resurrect a blocked sheer Georgette print from the Seventies, a simple jersey shift which was named Dress Of The Year in 1979 and T-shirt dresses with sequins at the hem, neck and sleeves from the Eighties.
Sales director Sinty Stemp, who has written the first biography of the designer, to be published this autumn, says: "We have never felt the need to hire a star designer like John Galliano or Christopher Bailey. Her signature look is quickly identified, but never shrieks that you are wearing a label. The clothes are as relevant today as they ever were."
In the end, I decide not to eat for the next year or so and choose a champagne tweed summer coat with a nipped-in waist, shot through with silver sequins and with a delicious buttery silk lining for £900.
It will look cool and elegant over my silver shift dress by new label Ashish, or even my battered 20-year-old Levis.
It has often been said that once you buy your first piece of Jean Muir, you won't want to wear anything else, so I am looking forward to being very poor.
"The clothes in themselves do not make a statement," Miss Muir once said. "The woman makes a statement and the dress helps."
And that's exactly how it should be.
Having gained a reputation for simple, classic clothing defined by exquisite cut and detail, it is, perhaps, hardly surprising to learn that Jean Muir started honing her eye for design as a sketcher for Liberty of London in the Fifties.
While the Sixties youth-quake dominated British fashion, Muir's pared-down styles in luxury fabrics in dark or muted tones appealed to sophisticated women looking to define a new, classically sexy look all of their own.
Muir's own style — severe black bob and pale skin, offset by a slash of red lipstick — hinted at the intelligent, elegant customer to whom her timeless clothing appealed.
The stars flocked to the dressmaker Jean Muir, but she eschewed what she saw as the pretensions of the industry. Now a new exhibition sheds some light on her very private life By Barry Didcock
THE ACTRESS Joanna Lumley once said every woman should have a Jean Muir dress in her wardrobe. Having modelled for the fashion designer from the mid-1960s onwards, Lumley's advice can be taken as fact. She was a self-confessed Muir "addict", and it's pleasing to imagine her spare room stuffed with the figure-hugging jersey dresses, flowing crepe outfits and sleek tailored suits that were the dressmaker's trademark over the course of her illustrious 50-year career.
In France, Muir was known simply as "la Reine de la Robe", the queen of the dress. In other parts she was dubbed "the Scottish Chanel", though to staff and clients at her headquarters in London's Bruton Street she was always referred to as "Miss Muir". An affectation, perhaps, but a winning one.
Lauren Bacall, Barbra Streisand, Charlotte Rampling, Antonia Fraser and the artists Bridget Riley and Elisabeth Frink were just a few of the women who found their way to Jean Muir's door. Fraser noted that Muir was also much favoured by the wives of ambassadors, recalling an event she attended in Washington where two such gilded creatures bonded over the words: "I see from your buttons we share a dressmaker." advertisement
Kristina Stankovski never made it to Bruton Street. She never joined Lady Antonia at an ambassadorial reception. Yet she has even more Jean Muir dresses than all those women put together. Ironically, however, she can't wear any of them: as curator of the National Museum of Scotland's Jean Muir Collection she knows they are too valuable to ever come into contact with human skin, hers or anybody else's.
Instead they are housed in a specially constructed building in Edinburgh's Granton area, boxed and stored in acid-free tissue paper along with the sketches, designs, tuilles, photographs, diaries and documents that make up the rest of what is an extraordinarily rich archive. It even includes Muir's desk from Bruton Street, as well as her dressmaker's dummy and some of her own clothes. It seems she never threw anything away.
Consisting of around 18,000 items, the collection was donated to the National Museum of Scotland in April 2005 by Harry Leuckert, Muir's widower and former business partner. Although she was born in London, her family was of Scottish origin and she was intensely proud of her roots, finding in the stories of Scots innovation and industry many of the guiding principles for her own career. She later served on the London board of the National Museum of Scotland, so for Leuckert it made sense to place the archive north of the Border.
As for the dresses themselves, Stankovski isn't actually sure how many the museum now owns. The number is certainly in the hundreds. It may well run into the thousands. "When we got the collection, we did a lot of research into similar archives elsewhere," she says. "We learned that because of its size and the comprehensive nature of what it holds, it's the largest collection devoted to any one designer in any museum in the world."
The process of cataloguing it is still ongoing, but this week the museum offers a taster of the riches it contains in Jean Muir: A Fashion Icon, the first of several planned exhibitions.
"It isn't a full retrospective obviously," says Stankovski. "Instead, it's an exhibition designed to introduce people to Jean Muir and the business she founded, and to show people what made her work so distinctive."
But with fashion designers Manolo Blahnik, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake and Georgio Armani all citing Muir as an influence, the unveiling of even a small part of the collection in Edinburgh this week is seen as a significant fashion coup for the city.
Meanwhile, students from Edinburgh College of Art's fashion department have already been set to work on a project to design a coat inspired by the things they find in the archive: the boxes of hallmarked silver buttons, perhaps, or the fluid sketches Muir would make while lying in bed in her minimalist London apartment.
Muir loved to work in buttery suede and supple leather and those materials are well represented among the 33 dresses that go on show this week. Also on view are sketches and photographs which illustrate her working methods.
Although known for her muted palette, there are some dazzlingly bright pieces in the exhibition too, among them a floral print blouse with a bow at the neck and a stiff, sculptured dress in an abstract black, yellow and blue print. Finally, visitors will see a long dress in red and black made from matte jersey. If Muir had a signature material, this is it: a viscose fabric that she started using in 1968 and which figured consistently in her designs.
"The female body was at the core of her work and that was a fabric that could hang beautifully on a woman and emphasise her shape," says Stankovski. "She loved movement and would often design garments that had a really beautiful full skirt or which were designed to enhance the wearer when she moved. She felt that explained why her clothes were worn by so many celebrities."
Fashion icon and dressmaker to the stars she may have been, but the demure Miss Muir was also a true enigma. Fiercely private, many of the details of her life are sketchy to say the least. Most sources give her date of birth as July 17, 1928, though there are other versions and even today, more than a decade after her death, only one biography has been written. All this makes the National Museum of Scotland's collection an even more valuable resource.
Muir died on May 28, 1995, two days after being admitted to hospital saying she felt unwell. The cause was breast cancer, which had been diagnosed a few weeks earlier. Her death came as a shock: typically, she had told virtually nobody that she was ill and worked right to the end.
In one particularly fond obituary, the art historian Sir Roy Strong called her 40-year marriage to Leuckert "perfect". It later emerged, however, that the German-born businessman had fathered a daughter in Germany in the mid-1970s. It also emerged that Muir knew about the girl, Friederike, and about her mother, Ingrid, and was apparently unconcerned. Leuckert later married Ingrid and Friederike wound up managing the Jean Muir shop in London's Conduit Street until it closed last year. She even wore a vintage Muir piece at her own wedding.
Beyond that, we know Muir liked champagne and jazz, always wore blue, was fond of quoting Ruskin and had a penchant for Mary, Queen of Scots. But she gave few interviews and never talked about her private life. Ever.
The fashion historian Jane Mulvagh was one of the lucky few to be invited to Muir's minimalist apartment near the Albert Hall in London. It was, she later recalled, "an all-white, squeaky clean temple imagine white walls, white floors, white upholstery, white furniture".
House rules dictated that all visitors leave their shoes by the front door and Mulvagh always found it brought out the "twitchy anarchist" in her. She longed to daub chocolate on the white sofa and paint grafitti on the walls. Instead she sat with her ankles crossed and behaved herself, grateful simply to be in the woman's presence.
Oddly, Muir did let the cameras in occasionally. In a memorable photo shoot for 1975's autumn collection, Joanna Lumley, in a brown jersey tunic and culottes, sits on the all-white bed. In another image from the spring collection of the same year, three models lounge on the same bed while Muir, wearing a simple black jersey dress of her own design, stands with her back to the window. She is a powerful presence.
Although forceful, Muir was not tall, barely five feet. To Antonia Fraser she was "a modish Puck dressed in navy-blue - if Puck can be feminine; everything about her is tiny except her eyes which are enormous". Others recalled her Louise Brooks bob, her flat-heeled lace-up shoes, her panda-eye make-up and her ever-present damson lipstick.
When her dander was up, she reminded Strong of the figure in Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream. In her work, however, he identified an "idiosyncratic mastery of cut and materials" that made her clothes "immediately recognisable and virtually dateless As a result, her art is like a single, unending but exquisite fugue".
Not everyone was so kind. In his diaries the fashion designer Ossie Clark referred to Muir as "old tombstone teeth" and for many young, cutting-edge designers in the 1970s and 1980s her immutable personal style and disdain for trends made her seem outdated.
That disdain was deep and heartfelt. "I hate the word fashion," she once said. "It doesn't mean anything." More than that, she hated being called a fashion designer. "A self-important, pretentious term," she snapped in an interview with Vogue in 1978. She saw herself simply as a dressmaker.
Her genius was this: always, she moved forward, always she retained the timeless quality that had marked her out in the first place. It was a delicate balancing act. "Nostalgia is a sickness," she once said. "Fantasy is something to dream about, not to put on your back. Repeating clothes from yesterday is a denial of today."
It's no surprise then that hers was one of the few fashion houses to survive the 1960s. She saw off the mini-skirt in 1970 when she introduced a below-the-knee skirt, and sailed through the 1970s and 1980s on a wave of elegent and unpretentious designs. Even Margaret Thatcher succumbed.
In 1988, Muir created a suite of clothes to celebrate Australia's bicentennial - many designs were based on the vivid colours of the Great Barrier Reef - and made a small nod to the changing face of retail by introducing diffusion lines and capsule collections. The lower-priced Jean Muir Studio Line debuted in 1986 and she followed that with Jean Muir Essentials in the early 1990s, a collection of separates.
The superlatives, then, outnumber the insults: not bad for a woman who started out in the stockroom at Liberty and taught herself to cut patterns at home in the evenings.
It was to vintage Jean Muir designs that another actress, Sienna Miller, turned when she was cast in the remake of Alfie, that most quintessential of 1960s British films. She is now an avid collector, along with Kate Moss. Even so, Muir's legacy has yet to be properly quantified or appreciated. Perhaps now, 80 years after her birth and more than a decade after her death, the process will begin in earnest. So go along, admire the wardrobe - just don't try anything on.
Jean Muir: A Fashion Icon opens this Friday at the National Museum of Scotland