An interview with the British fashion designer Sir Paul Smith, the man who saved British tailoring.
Fantastic Mr Smith
Where do Mick Jagger, Daniel Day Lewis and the young guns from the Kaiser Chiefs head when they're looking for a bespoke suit with a difference? To the British fashion designer Sir Paul Smith's jaunty flagship store in London's fashionable Notting Hill Gate district. With more than 30 years' experience creating covetable menswear collections and an impressive line-up of related fashion and design lines, the Paul Smith label is riding high on its international reputation for classic styling with a twist. That award-winning twist, or "ping" as the designer calls it, is often characterised by a flash of brilliant striped silk lining in a tailored tweed jacket or a jaunty row of buttons on an impeccable pinstripe suit. It is a look that is essentially British, but one that Smith consistently turns on its head.
The dapper designer, who was knighted by the Queen in 2000, attributes this success to his in-depth knowledge and appreciation of design, fabrics and retailing. "I create very wearable clothes with a sense of surprise - a little secret that only the wearer knows about. But I think the key thing is that I really know about retail. It's where I started," he explains. "So when I design a collection, I always think about what a shop needs - because you need the ballast ingredients of the classic pieces such as the black suit, but you also need to include more eclectic designs. If you can offer both, you create an exciting environment for your customer."
While the worldwide financial situation is taking its toll on many fashion-led companies, last April the independently owned Paul Smith brand reported a 22 per cent rise in profits for the year ending June 2008. "My style of fashion isn't really extreme. It's not about attention-seeking; it's about creating clothes that suit different situations," he says. "All our shops are also very individual and have their own characters. Even during this difficult time our menswear orders are up 20 per cent for our next spring/summer collection."
The Paul Smith brand produces 24 collections a year, including childrenswear, footwear and furniture. Paul Smith rugs, china, spectacles and fragrances are all produced under licence. The designer has also collaborated on several high-profile projects, including a Paul Smith Mini "Art Car" in Smith's trademark exuberant stripes, and most recently a limited-edition bottle for Evian. Smith is also a walking advertisement for his designs and claims to own a relatively large wardrobe. "I have lots of Paul Smith bespoke suits, but very rarely wear them as a suit. I often wear the jacket with more casual trousers or the suit trouser with a different jacket - I like to mix everything up.
"One of my favourite bespoke jackets is 12 years old. It's going a bit shiny and is slightly worn, but I like wearing it." With a customer base ranging from Bryan Ferry and David Bowie to Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand and Johnny Borrell from Razorlight to Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, Smith is delighted that his brand has a broad appeal. For next season, he has added a youthful edge to his mainline menswear collection. "I used lots more plain fabrics than usual, relying on cut, shape and surface finishes such as shine and texture. The look is loosely based on our younger rock-and-roll clients. I love the short double-breasted jacket with wide lapels, worn with slim trousers and a T-shirt, rather than a shirt. The construction is very soft. But for autumn we've reintroduced more colour and pattern back into the collection."
When Smith started his career in the 1970s, he recalls, British men were very nervous about colour and fashion. "I think what I managed to do slowly was to nudge rather than push men into buying a bit of colour. To basically be a bit braver about what they looked like." And it was not only the men who liked Smith's eponymous menswear collections. Women were making a beeline for his London shop in the 1980s, at a time when androgynous fashion was very much de rigueur and Smith's sharp men's shirts and jackets perfectly tapped into the look.
At the same time, the designer also caught the eye of leading fashion editors such as Conde Nast's Grace Coddington and Franca Sozzani, as well as the international fashion photographer Bruce Weber, all of whom featured his menswear in women's fashion shoots. "So many women were asking for my menswear in their size that we decided to introduce womenswear in 1993," says Smith. "At first we designed masculine-inspired shirts and trouser suits and then added more feminine pieces to sit alongside the formal tailoring."
Soon the Paul Smith womenswear show was a hot ticket at London Fashion Week and today the collection attracts a spirited following of leading ladies, spearheaded by Thandie Newton, Alexa Chung, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cate Blanchett and Elle Macpherson. The recent spring/summer 2010 Paul Smith womenswear show was one of the highlights of the 25th anniversary celebrations at London Fashion Week. The collection was a heady mix of vibrant colours, luxury fabrics and clashing patterns. "I was inspired by a book called Gentlemen of Bacongo by Daniel Tamagni (published by Trolley Books) that celebrates the fashion-obsessed Congolese dandies called Sapeurs," says Smith.
"My favourite pieces are the bright pink fitted suit that introduced the show and I also love the more feminine striped dresses that drape and wrap around the body." For next autumn, Smith is back on more familiar territory with an English aristocrat womenswear collection inspired by a vintage tailored Savile Row jacket. "As with all bespoke clothing, it had a label sewn inside with the client's name and date," he explains. "We did our research and found out who she was, and the collection is based around this wonderful woman called Lady Leigh. It's very British, but with a distinct modernity. There are still this masculine-feminine take; so there's structured country overcoats and riding jackets juxtaposed with delicate dresses."
Smith's knack of tapping into exactly what his customer wants has contributed to his enormous success. He was one of the first designers to recognise the attraction of merchandising his stores with quirky one-off and vintage pieces as a complement to the Paul Smith fashion collections - a precursor to today's concept-store phenomenon. "Carla Sozzani, owner of 10 Corso Como in Milan, and Colette Roussaux of Colette in Paris have both told me at separate times that my original Floral Street shop in London was the inspiration for their concept stores. Which is wonderful," says Smith.
"All that really started when I had my first 12 foot-square of a shop down a back alleyway in Nottingham, which was only open two days a week," he adds. "A lot of the same people visited every week, so I realised that the job of the shopkeeper is to offer the unexpected and to look different and interesting. So if I was in Paris for a weekend and went to the Pompidou Centre, I'd pick up 20 of their pens, designed to look like the distinctive ventilation shaft outside the building. I'd then sell them for very little profit, so when the regular customers came in they were offered unique things they couldn't get elsewhere."
The fledgling designer also ran an art gallery in the basement of the shop for several years. It was called the Pushpin Gallery, named after the graphic designer Milton Glaser's studio in New York. "Amazingly, we put on exhibitions by David Bailey, David Hockney, Andy Warhol and Patrick Caulfield in that smelly little damp basement," laughs Smith. "They wouldn't have lent me their art if they'd known where it was going!"
Smith was only 15 when he started working in a clothing warehouse in his hometown of Nottingham. At that stage his great passion was cycling, which he dreamt of doing professionally. Unfortunately, a serious accident at the age of 17 put an end to that ambition. Once out of hospital, he continued working at the warehouse and also started socialising with students from the local art school. Drawn to their seemingly exciting world of art, fashion and design, Smith soon found that he had a natural flair for merchandising. In fact, his manager was so impressed with Smith's displays that he quickly promoted him to buying menswear.
In his early 20s Smith met and fell in love with Pauline Denyer, whom he finally married in 2000 after 30 years together. "Meeting her was the turning point. She had trained as a fashion designer at the Royal College of Art in London and had a boundless positive energy," Smith recalls. "She was a Londoner and came to Nottingham School of Art to teach two days a week. I just thought, 'Wow!'" Encouraged by his girlfriend, Smith enrolled in a tailoring evening course and opened that first tiny shop in Nottingham. "Pauline made me realise that I wanted to do fashion. I had no formal training, but she made me understand how clothes were made. It was all about couture, proportions, shape and construction."
Through Denyer, Smith was fortunate enough to attend the Yves St Laurent and Balmain couture shows in Paris. "Having all those couture techniques reiterated visually was a real eye-opener," he says. "My father being a draper also influenced me, so I had a good grounding in couture and bespoke techniques." Many years after that, he goes on, "We got to meet Yves St Laurent. Pauline actually has the last couture suit ever made by him, a remake of a Le Smoking suit he designed in 1967, which was the year Pauline and I met."
Today, Smith's office, or laboratory as it is often referred to, reflects his passion for a diversity of interests and artefacts that all serve to inspire and provoke his designs. Every surface and wall surrounding his imposingly bare meeting table is heaving with reference books, images, crazy figurines, handcrafted pieces and objects lovingly collected over the years. "When I have design meetings here, it's all about leaning back and pulling out a book and saying, 'I like this,' or 'This is something beautiful'," says Smith. "Even just observing texture around the room can inspire my designs.
"There are also mad, unsigned objects that I've been sent over the past 20 years from someone in America," he continues. "They all arrive without a box, with my address written on them and tons of stamps. A selection of these items is currently being exhibited in Bangkok, and what's interesting is that when you put them in a Perspex case they suddenly looks like precious pieces of art." For an intimate snapshot of Smith's world, it is worth taking a look at his aptly titled book, You Can Find Inspiration in Everything (and if You Can't, Look Again).
Smith explains: "It's been reprinted for the third time by Violette Editions and it's not a coffee table book; it's very practical and aimed at demystifying the fashion industry." Smith celebrated his 63rd birthday this year and still thinks of himself as being essentially childlike. "By having a childlike approach to life, I still think laterally," he muses. "As you get older, you are often too logical about things. You rely on education, so it's already been done. But if you have an open mind you'll often see things in a fresh way. Basically, you don't want to buy yesterday's newspapers."