Remembering Michael Howells, the Fellini of the Fashion Show

Posted July 20, 2018 4:49 p.m. EDT

When I heard that British set designer Michael Howells had died Thursday at 61, it sent me shooting down a rabbit hole of memory to my introduction to the fashion world at the turn of the millennium. Howells’ work for designers such as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen helped redefine the fashion show as an immersive theatrical experience, and he changed all of our expectations about what seeing collections live and in person could mean.

It’s a somber moment for British fashion. Annabelle Neilson, a muse of McQueen, also died this month, on July 12. It’s beginning to feel like the end of a generation of talent that helped create the glory years of British fashion — the era in the 1990s and early 2000s when London was regarded as the center of the creative universe, and its visionaries disrupted the industry.

Howells came from the film world, and his first major design job, the visually luscious 1989 Peter Greenaway film “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” helped form his baroque approach to environments. He collaborated with many brands, including Christian Lacroix, Mulberry and Anya Hindmarch, and worked on everything from ad campaigns (for Burberry and Versace) to museum exhibitions (Stephen Jones at the Victoria & Albert Museum) and TV and film productions (the 1996 “Emma,” with Gwyneth Paltrow; and the 2005 “Nanny McPhee,” with Emma Thompson) — not to mention Kate Moss’ famously decadent “Beautiful and Damned” 30th birthday party.

But it was his partnership with Galliano that really raised the bar for shows, banishing the white background and, in a sense, preparing the industry for the Instagram era to come.

“We’ve always tried to make it feel like: You don’t just go see a show, you actually enter into this world, this sort of 20 minutes or hour, whatever, that time you’re there that you’re enveloped by the perfume, you’re enveloped by the music, and the touch, and the sound, and the taste,” he told Dana Thomas in an interview for her book “Gods And Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.” “The whole idea is that you yourself actually become part of the performance.”

Back in my fashion babyhood, when I first found myself in Row G in Paris, by far the hottest tickets were the Galliano and Dior shows — partly because of Galliano’s talent, of course, but also because of the sheer extremity of the experience. The set, as created by Howells, was an equal partner in sensory effect, placing you in the universe of someone else’s imagination. There was effectively a black market for tickets even among editors and retailers (not, that is to say, just fashion groupies and students), and people would bargain with each other for a chance to go.

I remember standing outside in the middle of one February, shivering, part of a giant crowd of jaded fashionistas in an industrial park on the outskirts of Paris. We waited for an hour that evening for a Galliano show, and I said to whoever was next to me, “This can’t be worth it.”

“It will be,” the person said — and was right. Inside, waiters swirled around cafe tables and old pianos and it was like entering another world. Howells, who rolled into Paris as part of the Galliano gang when the British designer got the top job at Dior in 1996, did not just create a runway; he would perfume the carpet that guests walked on, so that it released scent as they passed: oranges for the spring 1998 Dior couture show at the Palais Garnier. It was inspired by the Italian aristocrat and fashion muse Marchesa Luisa Casati, so guests sat on cushions covered in rabbit skin printed like zebra, next to tables covered in more rabbit, and everything they touched had a soft lushness echoed by the clothes.

Later that year, for the fall 1998 couture show, held in the Gare D’Austerlitz, there were palm trees and Moroccan tents and an actual train. Gardenia wafted up from the ground for the fall 2008 Dior couture, the John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” show that also involved giant velvet curtains, oversize tassels and pools of inky water.

There were shows with skeletons and live goldfish; a stuffed ostrich in sunglasses on a television; and in 2007, for the Dior 60th anniversary extravaganza at Versailles, candelabras with real arms, animal heads on classic statuary, silvered ballroom chairs and a giant statue of Louis XIV.

It might seem ridiculous, now that fashion has been reined in and corporatized, to pour so much effort and, clearly, money — according to Howells, budget was never discussed until late in the 2000s — into what would be effectively a 20-minute ride for a select few who could capture it only in words and photographs. To a certain extent it was.

But there was also a sense, for those of us who were in the room (and you had to be in the room), of being privileged to witness something truly special and often breathtaking. As a behind-the-scenes figure — despite being 6-foot-7 and often clad in a three-piece Savile Row suit — that was Howells’ genius. And at a time when we endlessly debate the point of a fashion show versus a digital experience, it’s worth honoring, and remembering. We won’t see its like again.