Half a century, by any measure, is a milestone that warrants reflection.
The British designer Sir Paul Smith is doing just that in his Covent Garden office, a place instantly recognisable from the piles of books, walls covered with artwork and a vast collection of curios from around the world.
“After 50 years, one of the most joyful things [of the business] is being an independent company,” he says. “But equally that’s also the biggest burden right now, as there isn’t the support system of a big group … But we’ve been good, and the great joy of independence is spontaneity.”
This uneasy year for fashion, for Smith like others, has signalled a recalibration of a well-worn system. There’ve been the obvious stressors – but even with a cancelled show and international book tour, Smith
hasn’t become too emotional over the recent state of affairs, as he’s “been too busy with everything else”.
“I honestly think that, out of this year, the affection for a brand that’s so down to earth and real will
hopefully shine through in a greedy corporate world,” he says. “Younger people, who are more socially and environmentally conscious, will hopefully take note.”
With the business at 50, and Smith himself an energetic 74, the designer admits that it’s been a long, exhilarating but rather organic journey to the top. A young cyclist who aspired to become a professional rider, Smith’s dreams were dashed by a severe accident on his bike at 17, which rendered him bed-bound in hospital for months. After that, he found himself drawn to design and fashion while hanging out with an art-school crowd and meeting his future wife Pauline at 21.
“‘Art-school culture’, those words you used – it’s fantastic, it’s really true, that’s exactly what Paul Smith is, even today,” he says, adjusting his famous specs. The work from those schools is “always a bit wacky, radical and experimental … You have to be brave enough to try new things … and be ridiculous.”
Smith’s first store was a tiny, single 3-metre-by-3- metre box room “down a funny old corridor with no windows” at 6 Byard Lane in the provincial English city of Nottingham. When Paul Smith Vetements Pour l’Homme opened in 1970, he was just 24 years old. Soon his popularity grew, fuelled by his positive personality, and footholds into Europe were made with a show debut at Paris Fashion Week in 1976, held at a friend’s flat on Boulevard de Vaugirard. After starting with one men’s collection, his business now encompasses fashion for men, women and children, shoes, accessories, fragrance and home furnishings.
That art-school culture core “is very British in a way”, Smith says, and certainly the beginnings of the label were very British. There were no technical fabrics at the time – only local tweed, corduroy, wools and shirting were available to the young designer. “But my skill was persuading a mill to make me these fabrics in very unusual colours: pink, lilac, lemon or blues, instead of the usual schoolboy palette of burgundy,
black grey or country colours. It was quite revolutionary at the time.”
Between the beautiful tailoring and fabrics, Smith pioneered a more playful, less formal approach to menswear in the ’80s, capturing the more relaxed sentiment of the fashion zeitgeist. The introduction of womenswear came in 1993, with the same approach to tailoring. While unisex-style dressing has become fashionable again in these past few seasons, Smith championed mixing men’s and women’s styles decades ago.
“I’ve always loved that boyish look,” the designer explains. “Pauline has a very slim figure and she’s
always enjoyed wearing a men’s-style shirt or a classic suit. I also enjoy how old film stars like Katherine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn dressed, and a bit later on the Kennedys and American socialites, who often wore a shirt and capri pants with a little loafer.”
In the ’80s, Grace Coddington of US Vogue was soon putting Smith’s oversized shirts, raincoats, knits and blazers on the magazine’s pages, worn by superstar models such as Linda Evangelista and captured by the likes of Patrick Demarchelier and Bruce Weber. “It was a real breakthrough for me,” Smith recalls.
After Smith’s Fashion Week debut, his quirky, wearable eccentricism quickly found fans in France, then Italy. Soon it was Japan, where there’s still a cultish Paul Smith fandom. In Hong Kong, with its British colonial ties, the label immediately secured a strong and steady foothold in the market. That soon spread to Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and mainland China. Going global made Smith one of British fashion’s most recognisable names.
Today, his bright-pink modernist store on Melrose Avenue has become one of the most Instagrammed buildings in Los Angeles. But Smith opened his first American store 40 years ago in New York on 16th Street and 5th Avenue. Now with Paul Smith in 17 countries across five continents and more than 17,000 points of sale globally, the designer says that his Brit-born brand “is obviously very international now”.
“I’d get bored if all I did was fashion,” he says, glancing at the all the design objects and mementos scattered around him in the office. “Working on all these collaboration items, it’s a whole different mindset. The process of designing a light or a watch or some spectacles, they’re all contributing back to the world of a designer.”
Such range speaks of Smith’s approach to style as a part of creative culture at large. Each of his stores is different from the others – there’s no template, but a preference for architectural and interior individuality that’s dependent on locations. He’s worked on collaborations with the likes of Land Rover, Rapha, New Balance, Penguin Classics, John Lobb, Caran d’Ache and the Manchester United football team. Then there are the Mercian bicycles, the Giro d’Italia race and Leica camera collaborations, which touch on his original passion for cycling and his “other” main skill, photography.
“As a cyclist, designing the famous pink jersey for the Giro d’Italia race was just great, and it was blessed by the Pope – that was amazing,” says Smith with a smile. “And if I hadn’t become designer, I probably would have ended up as a photographer. My dad was an amateur photographer and I started taking photographs when I was 11. And when I was doing other jobs for money while running my first store, I was a freelance photographer for great magazines like Architectural Digest and Casa Vogue … So obviously, the Leica collaboration was a favourite – it was my dad’s dream to own one and he never got to.”
Smith was, in fact, one of the first fashion designers seriously to employ photographic print on fabric in the ’80s, using his own captures. And to celebrate his brand’s 50th anniversary, on September 30, he launched a special capsule of reimagined archive prints (including his famous Spaghetti print) on men’s and women’s sporty- street styles. Bold, contemporary, graphic prints appear on track tops, hoodies and a range of accessories.
There’s also the October launch of a book by Phaidon that celebrates his half-century – but instead of a typical fashion retrospective, based largely on runway archives, it features 50 curated items of special meaning to Smith and the brand, each signifying a year of business.
The freethinking art-school culture of the label still informs his attitude now, Smith says. He runs his meetings with a high sense of openness and experimentation.Throw in Smith’s own insatiable curiosity and a magpie- like proclivity for collecting, and the result is a unique ability to keep doing the unexpected.
“What’s exciting and humbling to me is that we’ve always had a relevance within the industry, and a lot of our clients have enjoyed my work for a long time. What’s really brilliant is that we have lots of younger customers too,” he explains. “Plus, we’ve got good manners, we’re nice people and we behave properly.”
Bearing in mind the scale, scope and longevity of the label, there’s nothing more charming than a boss who, 50 years on, still works the shop floor on Saturdays, as Smith does at his Mayfair store. In the often-vicious world of high fashion, how strangely refreshing is it to encounter a designer renowned for niceness, rather than melodrama. Surely that’s partly been a key to the label’s longevity over the past five decades.
Fashion the Paul Smith way remains thought-provoking, even 50 years on, with a classic-with-a-twist aesthetic that’s inclusive rather than elitist.
There’s also that compelling message of hope, done with a cheeky British wink. You can see it in the collections, the vibrancy of autumn/winter 2020 – bolts of graphic contrasting colours, fluid tailoring and the juxtapositions of ideas.
“Irreverence and contradictions have become so important in a world that’s become so clichéd in some ways,” Smith explains when asked how he manages to keep things so fresh over so many years. “So much of it is so formulaic in this industry, but we’ve never ever had that approach.”