Jean MuirDressmaker (1928 – 1995)
Legendary dressmaker JEAN ELIZABETH MUIR (1928 – 1995) made clothes that were both radical and classic, breaking the barrier between couture and ready-to-wear. The self-taught Muir made her name in the 1960s, creating a reputation for exquisitely tailored, timeless, feminine clothing. She has been hailed as the greatest dressmaker in the world, in a league with Madame Grès, Chanel and Vionnet.
Muir is ‘a designer’s designer’, admired by the likes of Gaultier, Issey Miyake and Giorgio Armani. She received countless awards in Europe, the UK, the US and Asia. She continually held the attention and respect of fashion critics, and worked with some of the world’s most established photographers. A 1975 survey reported the two most copied designers in the world to be Jean Muir and Yves Saint Laurent.
Muir was born to Scottish parents in London, England in 1928. She was raised in Bedford where she attended Dame Alice Harper girls’ school. It was there that she first remembers learning to draw, sew and embroider, and where she developed a passion for Art History. Leaving school at 17 with an indifferent school certificate, Muir chose not to attend art school and later viewed this decision as an advantage to her career. After several years working locally for a solicitor and for the county council, she moved to London, where she began working in the stockroom at Liberty & Co.
Self taught, it was her determination and self-confidence that drove her. During the six years that she worked at Liberty & Co Muir progressed through a variety of positions. A move to the lingerie department saw her selling and sketching made-to-measure silk Liberty gowns. She was then promoted to the new Young Liberty department, where she continued to sell and sketch, whilst becoming involved in Liberty’s fashion shows. It was in this refined environment that she developed her tastes for high quality fabrics and impeccable tailoring. During this time Muir received thorough training in the commerce of business: selling, fitting, designing, manufacturing, export, the relationship between retailers and wholesalers; what sold in different parts of the country and how all these aspects are intrinsically related in a successful company. Muir would later state that, “fashion is not art, it’s industry”.
The next formative step in Muir’s career was her move to Jaeger in 1956, where she again found herself working in an environment that valued tradition and quality. It was here that Muir first encountered knitwear and jersey, which would later become her own signature fabrics. Muir became the main person designing these parts of Jaeger’s collections. Despite being one of the company’s youngest designers, Muir’s sophisticated designs were quickly recognized and she was given control of the Boutique, a small capsule collection of formal and evening wear that would not have been found in Jaeger’s principal line. It was aimed at a younger and less conservative customer, thus prompting Muir to create the name ‘Young Jaeger’ which came to define the generation.
Leaving Jaeger, Muir was approached by David Barnes, a mass-market jersey dress manufacturer, who recognized her exceptional talent and offered to fund her company. In 1962 Muir launched Jane and Jane, bringing customers couture-quality clothing in a ready-to-wear line. Muir’s designs were instantly recognized and applauded by the fashion world and in the following years she would receive numerous prestigious awards. Muir’s clothes were the first to bridge the gap between Couture and wholesale, thus inspiring the term ‘Wholesale Couture’. Muir’s tailoring, influenced by the 1930s and emphasising movement and femininity, favoured softly rounded lines rather than restrictive shapes. With the success of Jane and Jane, Muir’s husband Harry Leuckert, with whom she had always shared her ideas, became her business manager, allowing Muir to focus only on design.
In the sixties, London became the international focus of fashion as a burgeoning youth culture suddenly stepped into the spotlight. Responding to this new demand for clothing that was age-appropriate, affordable and fun, designers ditched couture silhouettes for geometric, restrictive shapes inspired by Pop Art, Op Art and an obsession with the space-age. Muir, however, saw these movements as a digression in the greater story of what would be fashion’s evolution. While popular fashion was considered revolutionary, Muir’s contribution to the decade was a style that could be considered evolutionary, as it drew from classic pieces to create new and timeless designs that were not inspired by trends.
Muir’s relationship with fashion, both as a term and as a movement at large, was non-conventional. She disagreed with the way ‘fashion’ referred to passing trends and infamously claimed that ‘fashion’ would be better used as a verb, as in “to fashion a dress”. This interpretation also reflected Muir’s value of the process of making clothing; her concern for precision and craftsmanship. Using the couture-quality techniques of precision-cutting and meticulous attention to detail, she sought to create her own “subtle style of ready-to-wear”. Her clothes are famous for their minimalism and innovation.
Muir described her approach to dressmaking as ‘engineering in cloth’. It was during this process that she would skillfully draft her impeccably-fitting patterns. At the outset of a new season, Muir would devote several weekends entirely to sketching. From the culled and re-worked final sketches Muir would then work with her technicians to make a toile (prototype in white calico) of each design. To determine the precise fit she would try on each toile herself. Patterns would then be cut on card and graded in five sizes ranging from 8 to 16. This was an extensive process – one of Muir’s garments could comprise as many as 40 pieces. Muir would then cut her highly structured pattern out of an extremely supple fabric – she favoured leathers, suedes, wools, silks and matte jersey –transforming it into something very fluid, feminine.
Muir collaborated with a variety of highly skilled craftspeople to embellish her garments to a high standard. She worked with embroiderers, leather workers, print designers, hand printers, textile designers, silversmiths, jewelers and milliners to create bespoke accessories such as perspex or brass belt buckles, long rows of tiny silver or covered buttons and unique shades of dye. It was often through these collaborations that her signature quirky, witty touch would be added; she once commissioned a beautifully enameled belt buckle featuring two cows grazing. Muir bought only the best quality fabrics, and preferred in all cases to buy British materials. Apart from her French matte jersey and some silks, her wools, tweeds, silks and leathers came from specialist British suppliers who would work with her to fulfill her exacting standards.
In 1966 Muir and her husband established Jean Muir Limited, and from their Bruton street showroom they made the signature Jean Muir look legendary. Muir worked from this studio for 19 years, creating seasonal collections that consistently defied and outlasted trends, until she moved to a studio in Clerkenwell, keeping Bruton street as her showroom. Her sophisticated designs were consistently minimal, sensual and innovative, adapting through the decades to respond to trends without replicating them. It was in her Bruton Street Studio that Muir would show her collections seasonally. The event was remembered by most as a highlight of Fashion Week and as an ultimately luxurious experience, with champagne at the door and music by the American cabaret singer Bobby Short.
Muir was devoted to the arts and education throughout her life. She was a member of the Design Council and a long-standing Trustee of the Victoria and Albert museum. In 1993 she was elected Master of the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry, through which she strove to intermix engineers with artists, politicians with product designers. In 1994 she wrote her ‘Manifesto for Real Design’ in the Sunday Times and embarked on a supporting lecture tour. Promoting the arts in North East England, Muir played a significant role in transforming Belsay Hall, Northumberland, into a centre for contemporary design.
After Muir’s death in 1995 Jean Muir Limited did not close, but continued to run under Leukert’s direction and under the creative direction of Joyce Fenton-Douglas and four others, all of whom had worked alongside Muir. Although the company celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2006, it was closed in January 2007. The complete Jean Muir archive was donated to the National Museums of Scotland.
© Design Museum + British Council
1928 Born in London to Scottish Parents and is raised and educated in Bedford.
1950 Begins working in the stockroom at Liberty & Co, where she progresses through several positions.
1955 Marries Harry Leuckert, a professional actor.
1956 Begins working for Jaeger where she is responsible for several collections and attends Paris couture shows.
1962 Leaves Jaeger to design her first collection under the Jane and Jane label.
1964 Wins the Bath Costume Museum Dress of the Year Award and is awarded Dress of the Year by the Fashion Writer’s Association.
1965 Receives the Ambassador’s Award for Achievement and the Haarper’s Bazaar Trophy.
1966 Establishes Jean Muir Limited with husband Harry Leuckert, who becomes the company’s business manager and co-director.
1968 Wins the Bath Costume Museum Dress of the Year Award.
1972 The Royal Society of the Arts appoints her Royal Designer for the Industry (RDI).
1979 Wins the Bath Costume Museum Dress of the Year Award and is appointed an Advisory Member to the Victoria & Albert Museum Council.
1980 Lotherton Hall in Leeds hosts an exhibition on Jean Muir which then tours Birmingham, Bath, Belfast and Stoke-on-Trent.
1983 Launches Jean Muir in Cotton, becomes a member of the Design Council, the B/Tec Board for Design and a Trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum.
1984 Awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire, CBE. Launches Jean Muir at Home and Jean Muir for Men.
1985 Awarded the Hommage de la Fédération Francais du Prêt-à-Porter Féminin and launches Jean Muir Studio Collection.
1988 Shows at the Australian Bicentennial Collection for the IWS (international Wool Secretariat) at the Sydney Opera House.
1993 Three part TV series ‘Very Jean Muir’ airs on Channel Four and Muir is appointed Vice-President of Friends of Victoria & Albert Museum.
1995 Appointed Member of the London Committee of the Museum of Scotland Project.
1995 Dies of breast cancer on May 28th
© Design Museum + British Council
Sinty Stemp, Jean Muir: Beyond Fashion, Antique Collectors' Club, 2007
Fourty Years On: The Prime of Miss Jean Muir, 16.09.2006, The Independent Magazine, Ian R. Webb
The Jean Muir Fan Club, 22.01.05, Telegraph Magazine, Drusilla Beyfuss
A Girl’s Best Friend, 25.11.06, The Times Magazine, Prue White
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