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.
According to Baudelaire, the fashion designer is "the painter of modern life" who "has an aim loftier than that of the mere flaneur... He is looking for that quality which you must allow me to call 'modernity'." Jean Muir dedicated her professional life to distilling the essence of modernity, for nostalgia in dress was anathema to her.
The axiom of her craft was common sense, which she raised to the pitch of genius. Her clothes were effortless, comfortable and, once donned, easily forgotten by the wearer never the beholder. Many women working in the public eye Lady Antonia Fraser, Patricia Hodge, Carmen Callil, Beatrix Miller wore her simple, thoughtful clothes. They were rinsed of seasonal gimmicks and spurious feminine details and did not require a model's body to look good.
The archetypal Muir dress, recognised the world over, was tailored rather than draped in navy or black rayon crepe. Top-stitched seams sufficed as decoration, though in a regrettable nod to the gaudy Eighties she did take to scattering the bodices of her dresses with glittery sequins.
Miss Muir never Jean, for like Madame Gres she was rather particular about formality was of puritan Scottish stock. After being educated at a rather proper girls' school in Bedford she began her career in a solicitor's office. Moving to Liberty, she started off in the stockroom, briefly sold lingerie and then began sketching and selling made to measure clothes. After a spell at Jacqmar, in 1956 she joined Jaeger, where she specialised in knitwear design.
Throughout the late Fifties she regularly attended the haute couture collections in Paris, during its heyday. The perfectionism of Balenciaga and Dior was not lost on the canny and observant young Scot. She was a purist and one of the first to apply couture standards of conception and perfection to ready-to wear. This was a particularly bold decision for in the Sixties, when she launched her own label, shoddy novelty was preferred to impeccably crafted understatement.
In 1962 Muir started her own label, "Jane & Jane", which was eventually sold to Courtaulds. Four years later she launched her eponymous label with the help of her husband Harry Leuckert, a retired actor.
She always regarded herself as a dressmaker, never a "fashion designer", and as a craftsman and certainly not an artist. She was far too rigorous with herself, as well as her staff, to tolerate such indulgence. It was not for nothing that the press liked to dub her the Miss Jean Brodie of design, for her work was the "creme de la creme'' of British dressmaking.
Muir designed for a woman of mature outlook be she 25 or 65 and a modern, restrained elegance. She never cast her as a doll, sex kitten, earth mother, dressing up queen or kept woman; such stereotypic fantasies were dreamt up by other designers and she would not subscribe to that demeaning ploy.
Despite the fickleness of high fashion she remained consistent; creating, season in and season out, an evolving series of sober clothes. With only rare exceptions she ignored the industry's pressure to take up the latest fad and, in doing so, negate last year's work. Her resolve and sense of purpose served her loyal band of customers well.
Muir was also a sensualist. The physical sense of dress was just as important to her as the visual impact. Her clothes were allied to the body and its movements, not alien to it. To her the definition of a modern woman was "someone who is loose-limbed, broad minded and not afraid of her body" and so her craft depended on a thorough study of anatomy and body movement. Approaching the female form with the same strict exactitude as Leonardo da Vinci did his anatomical drawings, she studied woman in motion and covered her in fabrics that enhanced the grace and allure of that movement. It was not surprising that one of Muir's great loves was the ballet, for which she designed costumes.
Pockets were placed, for example, at hip level, encouraging the wearer to hold her shoulders back and adopt a confident air. Bust darts were eliminated as she considered them both anatomically irrelevant (she preferred to mould the torso) and just plain ugly. She prescribed a limited and integrated wardrobe so that her clothes would not distract the wearer.
Another strength was her fastidiousness about colour. There are certain shades that one readily associates with her: more navy blues than there are names to describe, a flat metallic Prussian blue, the deep blue red of a plum tomato, a sad saffron, a zinging Matisse orange, the silvery purple of heather and an intense pine green. These colours were hard won, for she worked in close contact with mills and dyers, sending samples back and forth until the exact tone was achieved.
Miss Muir was a rigorous self disciplinarian. Visiting her flat behind the Royal Albeit Hall would bring out the twitchy anarchist in me. This all white, squeaky clean temple seemed the acme of genteel refinement. Imagine, white walls, white floors, white upholstery, white furniture surely snow blindness would strike as one sat in this antiseptic abode. House rules laid down that shoes were left at the door and replaced by slippers. Subversive thoughts would edge into the mind while one was slip sliding around this contamination free zone: how one would love to graffiti the pristine walls with obscenities like "Psychedelic!" or "Sweet Disorder!", and munch chocolates on that white sofa, or take up finger painting in that virginal dining room - anything to disturb this cleanliness and propriety. But etiquette informed all behaviour in front of Miss Muir and so one just sat, ankles and hands neatly crossed, behaving oneself.
Jean Mulr was strange to behold. Her mannerisms suggested a highly strung woman who would crumble at the slightest pressure. She was bird boned, barely five foot high and always dressed in deep navy. Over the decades her look was immutable: a navy dress or separates, lace up shoes with a sensible heel, taupe foundation and that Biba style, plum socketed eye make up and damson lips that were all the rage circa 1972. She favoured a Louise Brooks bob, just covering the ears and parted quite emphatically to one side. Most memorable of all was that interrogatory squeak that punctuated all communication and which one subconsciously mimicked, so that a conversation began to sound like a strange mating call exchanged between two reluctant hamsters.
Aside from her work with students, Mulr earnestly defended the crafts in Britain. She was of great service to both industry and education. As a member of the B/Tec Board of Design, she influenced the future of design through the educational system and she used this role to urge the importance of craft rather than art. In many things she shared Ruskin's views on the importance of craft for she was appalled that in the machine age our society accorded little respect to those who worked with their hands.
For this reason she refused to use the word fashion as a noun. "Fashion! I hate the word," she would declare. "I hate the over-importance attached to it. I am a dressmaker. It is better used as a verb, not a noun: to fashion, to make, to craft, the art of making, which implies craft and skill."
MISTRESS of the uncompromising English understatement in fashion, Jean Muir always preferred the label dressmaker to that of designer. In the midst of the seismic fashion revolution of the Sixties she created outfits according to minimalist, disciplined and above all consistent principles. These were to outlive the chaotic decade of their birth, to seem not at all out of place in the purposeful Thatcherite Eighties and to survive triumphantly into the more uncertain climate of the Nineties.
It was often said that her collections were a disappointment to headline writers. Jackets and skirts which were in fact miracles of cutting, born out of a profound understanding of the qualities of the fabrics she used, did not necessarily go out of their way to woo the cameras crouching at catwalk level. It was as if the touch of Calvinism in her own nature, inherited perhaps from Scottish ancestry on her father's side. had transferred itself to her creative output. This remained, in spite of the gales and currents that swirled about it year by year, obdurately true to itself.
None of this stopped her from quietly garnering a reputation which was. at length to. become unassailable as; simply, the best clothes designer of her day in Britain. Princess Alexandra, Lady Antonia Fraser, Joanna Lumley (once one of her models) and Glenda Jackson were among her many clients. After she had been appointed CBE in 1984 France, too, handsomely acknowledged her achievement when, in 1985, she was accorded the accolade of I'Hommage de la Mode by the Federation du Pret a Porter Feminin.
Jean Elizabeth Muir was born in London but brought up in Bedford where she went to Dame Harper School. Though she took what she described as a "very moderate School Certificate there, she was encouraged by a sympathic teacher in a love of art and all things visual.
She left at 17 and went to work in the electoral registration office at Bedford Town Hall, before coming to London 'where, after a short period in a solicitor's office, she took a lowly berth in the stockroom of Liberty's. From there she graduated to selling over the counter and, though without any formal art college training, was given the opportunity to sketch in the ready to wear department.
This was to be her apprenticeship and it was good enough for her to be taken seriously when she applied, in 1956, for a job as a designer at Jaeger, for which she was accepted. After six years at Jaeger she moved in 1962 to the Jane & Jane label. In 1965 she won an Ambassador Award for Achievement for one of her independent collections and in the following year, when Jane & Jane's parent company was taken over by by Courtaulds, Muir and her husband Harry Leuckert, whom she had married in 1955, decided to start their own company, Jean Muir.
Over the next thirty years she created and unswervingly maintained the style that was instantly recognisable as her stamp. Her hemlines never yo yoed between seasons from mid thigh to mid calf. Her colours would not, suddenly and stridently, inhabit unexpected and bizarre portions of the spectrum. Her models never made revelations of flesh intended to be seductive (with tabloid and often not so tabloid papers in mind) to the camera eye. Neither did her girls stomp the runways to the crash of heavy metal rock music.
Instead, utter simplicity was her hallmark. She made the little nothing" of a black dress a classic. In a world of violent change she adhered to certain principles, "engineering with fabric" as she liked to call it. This adherence did not imply conservatism. But the evolution from the Sixties through the following decades was a matter of subtle change. And the skills of cut and drape of which she was so totally a master were often more appreciated by the fashion critics of the Continent than they were at home. The simplicity, too, was often deceptive. The tiniest of jackets might contain 18 pattern pieces.
Her personal style exemplified the same tenacious single mindedness that characterised her collections. From an early age she had decided to wear only one colour herself navy (though she later also wore black). And although her flat behind the Albert Hall was painted entirely white white floors, white walls and decorated with white flowers (she was particularly fond of cammelias), this contrast was not really what it, might have seemed These domestic surroundings were, like her professional work, minimalist. There was very little clutter, very little furniture. Like her fashion, her life was an elimination of the nonessential.
Among the many honours that came her way, she was made a Royal Designer, for Industry (RDI) in 197Z and had a British Fashion Industry Award in 1984. She also held honorary doctorates from a number of universities.
Her CBE of 1984 recognised her services to industry but one of the honours which gave her most pleasure was her honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in 1981, since this was a direct acknowledgement of the tireless campaign she fought for more and better design education at school and college levels. Her forceful paper to the Royal Society of Arts in 1979 insisted on the need for setting standards of design teaching. She herself liked nothing better than working with fledgeling designers and imparting her ideas to them. She had also been a member of the Design Council since 1983 and a Trustee of the Victoria and Albert museum since 1984.
To the end Jean Muir maintained a refusal 'to be nostalgic about the decade in which she had found fame. In the Sixties, England lost sight of many things. 1 think it was then that fashion came to be considered frivolous and undisciplined." About herself and her craft, she was never sentimental, either. "I'm not necessarily hung upon dress design. It just happens to be the kind of design 1 find myself in. Fate led me to Liberty's, but it might have led me to Heal's." This was of a piece with the realism, self awareness and restraint which characterised her indelible contribution to the history of contemporary English fashion.
She is survived by her husband and business manager, Harry Leuckert.
THERE is one question people always ask a fashion editor; who is your favourite designer?" My answer has always been: Jean Muir.
In an industry that relies upon novelty and innovation, the diminutive designer stood head and shoulders above the rest with her vision of fashion: that women's clothes should be simple, flattering and easy to wear. Her understated style was the definition of modem chic. elegant and effortless.
The appeal of her pared down clothes is astounding. They are admired by fashion editors and customers alike. Among those who love to wear Jean Muir are the actresses Patricia Hodge and Joanna Lumley a house model in the 1970s the writer Antonia Fraser and the artist Bridget Riley. Muir clothes are expensive because she insisted on quality fabrics that responded to her fluid lines: jersey and silk jersey, wool, crepe, suede, cashmere and the softest leather. To her basic palette of navy, black and grey (Miss Muir herself invariably wore black or navy blue), she added shocks of red, turquoise, yellow or pink.
Whenever I have had her creations hanging in my office, women would quickly gather to see and, if they were lucky, to try on these remarkably unremarkable fashions. Her clothes allow women to feel comfortable and look elegant.
Yet Miss Muir, as she was respectfully referred to, was as modest as her designs. Among the industry's egocentric celebrities, her unpretentious outlook was rare. She referred to herself as a dressmaker and cut through any pompous analysis of her work as deftly as she might slice into a piece of navy blue jersey or shocking pink suede. "I'm not hung up about clothes," she once told me.
But she cared passionately about them. More than anything she adored the exacting process of her trade. "If I want to put my staying power down to anything she said, "it is because I am a good technician."Miss Muir's technique was nothing short of brilliant. The quintessential little black jersey dresses, for which she is perhaps best known, are testament to her talent. To make a dress that looks so simple requires tremendous skill. It is a long, exhausting process that demands not only precise cutting but endless fittings and minute adjustments.
Miss Muir loved these fittings, trying on everything she designed. She would stand in front of a long mirror, painstakingly studying the reflection. She inspected her work, looking for mistakes, pinning and repinning the fabric until she was finally happy with its silhouette. It was an arduous task of which, thankfully, she never tired.
Her approach to her profession was uncommonly pragmatic. "When designing clothes, you must remember that you are covering a body that moves," she said. 'That is the reason for the craft." Her clothes are indeed her finest tribute. They are enduring, tasteful, irresistible and unmistakable, a permanent reminder of the remarkable energy and refinement that was Miss Muir.