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Apr / May 2012
The Accidental Designer

Writer: Warren Singh-Bartlett

Paul Smith represents the kind of fashion that doesn’t go out of style. By enlivening classical cuts with splashes of colour and incorporating playful prints and stripes, his clothing designs are just as fresh as when he started out in the 1970s. Meet the man behind the label.


Whether or not you find Paul Smith’s clothes quirky depends largely on how you come to them. Arrive from a traditional background and yes, his prints and penchant for flashes of bright colour will likely strike anyone outside of England (or over the age of 50) as somewhat ‘unusual’.

Arrive from a yoof or street-style background and you’ll likely find his tailored shirts and sumptuously lined suits classical and though they are racier, even his t-shirts and accessories may come across as restrained.

But then that’s Paul Smith’s genius. Quirky enough to make the traditionalist feel rebellious, corporate enough to make the individualist blend in, his style has widely been described as classic tailoring, with a twist.

In practical terms, the ‘twist’ translates into bold prints and colourful stripes (on shirts, suit linings, bags, wallets), clever detailing (splashes of colour under suit collars, bright stitchery around button holes) and collections that encourage playful contrast (Harris tweed worn with silk, anyone?). Meanwhile, the ‘classic tailoring’ means sharp lines, impeccable proportions – he’s the Palladio of clothing - and perfect cuts, the product of Smith learning to make clothes the old-fashioned way.

“The foundation of clothes-making is pattern design,” he explains, subtly echoing Picasso’s famous dictum that before one can draw like a child, one has to learn how to draw like an adult first. “Once you know how to do that, then you can break the rules.”

As an approach, ‘classic, with a twist’ is now so widely emulated, albeit to wildly varying degrees of success, you almost forget that before Paul Smith pretty much the only time the words ‘classic’ and ‘twist’ were used at the same time, at least since the Restoration, was on a cocktail menu.

In Sir Paul’s case (the designer was knighted in 2000) this approach is born of nurture - Smith Senior, a draper by trade and an amateur photographer by vocation was eccentric and creative – and necessity.

When he opened his first boutique, Paul Smith Vêtement Pour Homme, in his hometown of Nottingham in 1970, he had 600 GBP to his name. While his premises on Byard Lane cost just 50 Pence a week to rent, he still needed to buy stock, material and decorate.

The latter problem was simply resolved. Sir Paul redecorated the shop himself and then filled it with things he and girlfriend/muse (now wife) Pauline had lying around at home, thereby establishing the eclectic style that has come to characterise every Paul Smith store since.

As for the clothes, he realised that in order to succeed, he needed to offer something different. But not so different that no one would buy them. “The way to success,” he is often quoted as saying, “is the balance between the creative and the saleable” and in 1970, saleable was important. Since Nottingham was then nothing if not solidly provincial, he decided to limit himself to three basic swathes; plain white, plain blue and a simple stripe. To give himself an edge, he began to introduce the distinctive touches like embroidered buttonholes and cuffs lined with different materials, that later defined his style and he supplemented his stock with carefully selected pieces by other designers, bringing in names that were not then readily available outside of London.

The formula was a success. During the first week, the Byard Lane boutique pulled in 52 GBP and gradually, Sir Paul’s collection began to expand. In 1976, he began showing in Paris and as his clothing grew in popularity – early associations with cultural icons like the Rolling Stones and dandy football hero, George Best definitely helped. It was time to consider opening another boutique.

In 1979, he opened on London’s Floral Street, in those days better known for fresh produce than fashion and by 1983, two more Paul Smith boutiques were launched in the capital. If London was an obvious destination for a British designer, Smith’s next choice was much more surprising.

In 1981, he visited Japan. Amazingly, for it is one of the biggest luxury markets in the world today, in the early 1980s, Japan was both unknown and ignored and with the exception of a few major haute couture lines, foreign designers didn’t really have a presence.

Something about the country clicked and over the course of the next few years, Sir Paul made the long trip out almost on a monthly basis. His efforts paid off. In 1984, he entered into a licensing agreement with the Itochu Group and began expanding across the country.

Today, he’s sold at 320 different locations in Japan and designs a separate line of clothing – R. Newbold – that was originally only intended for the Japanese market. No other foreign designer has been as successful and given his ubiquity, Paul Smith can in some ways be considered domestic as much as a British import.

The Japanese appetite for British classicism has been a key factor but Sir Paul attributes his success to three things; he makes multiple visits to Japan each year to meet distributors, shop staff and fans alike, he works hard on his business relationships and he is both vocal and enthusiastic about his appreciation of Japanese culture.

Hardly rocket science but he says that in his experience, many foreign designers don’t make as much of an effort, some going so far as to complain about Japanese food, cultural differences and the length of the flight.

Watching him in Gentleman Designer, a documentary by Stephane Carrelthat that was released last year, being mobbed by hordes of screaming Japanese fans, his passion is clearly reciprocated. As they pose for photos and present t-shirts, notebooks, even legs for signature, Sir Paul comes across as more rock star than fashion designer.

Still, that he considers himself a designer at all is something that might have taken Smith’s Byard Lane self by surprise. For several years, his lack of formal training left him unwilling to apply the description to himself, even though he was designing his own collections.

“A lot of the problem with being called an ‘architect’ or a ‘designer’,” he explains, with a reserve many younger, less talented designers might want to adopt themselves, “is the burden of the word itself.”

If he only fell into fashion design because his girlfriend had taught him how to make clothes and then pushed him to think up a collection, Smith wasn’t entirely lacking gumption.

When a designer friend confided to him in the days before Byard Lane, that she wanted to open a store but had no idea how to do it, he immediately told her he could help, even though until that point, he had had no experience of running, let alone of opening, a shop.

In this hubristic age of branding and self-promotion, Sir Paul is refreshingly insistent that he succeeded in spite of himself. Not only did he never imagine starting a business (Smith Junior dreamed of becoming a professional cyclist), he had never planned for that business to turn into a global empire.

“It all started with the thought of ‘oh, why don’t we open a small shop?’” he says, with a trace of what sounds almost like wonderment at how far he’s come, “then it was ‘oh, why don’t we have our own collection?’”

Slowly, because Sir Paul likes to take his time and also because after briefly entertaining the idea of bringing shareholders on board, he decided to keep his company private, that collection became a business and that business became an empire.

Today, Paul Smith is sold at more than 2,500 locations worldwide and Paul Smith Holdings - which includes 12 collections, shoes, bags, glasses and other accessories - was estimated in 2011 by the Sunday Times to be worth in the region of 250 Million GBP. “We’re a big company,” he told one interviewer last year, “but we’re big on our own terms.”

More quirk? Perhaps, but then for this passionate collector, professional flâneur and accidental designer running a business has always just been “a matter of having a really lovely day.”

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