He could be your trusty next door neighbour, he could be the idiosyncratic guy you sat next to on a train once or he could be the person you go to for colourful life stories. Paul Smith is everything you hope for in someone who has catapulted into fashion fame: warm, unfazed and sage. Editor in Chief, Georgie Bradley has a good old-fashioned sit down with the man behind the eponymous brand…
“Now do I call him Sir Paul, or is just Paul fine?” I ask gingerly, almost embarrassed at my judicious want to get it right. “No, no, please, just Paul!” I’m told with aching relief. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t watched a few interviews Paul has given which have ended up on YouTube – I find him to be a convivial, open man (this is pre interview, mind you) who wouldn’t misconstrue a question with attack just because he can. Despite receiving his knighthood (Command of the British Empire) in 1994 for his services to the British fashion industry, I get the sense that this ‘one-ofthe-people’ man is at odds with the glitterati and gossipy nature of the industry, but not in an overtly frustrated way, but more in a humble, accepting manner of the hubris that exists throughout but where his amiability remains in tact.
As I wait around the Paul Smith studio in Paris’ 3rd arrondissement it strikes me that his collections are very sophisticated as the mannequins stand strong in a riot of colour and tailored prestige. Personal memorabilia hang around the elegant, high ceiling space, including slightly sepia tinted photos of Paul and Pauline (his wife and muse) that date back a few decades. I hear him closing up the conversation with an American blogger who precedes me in another grand, floodlit room; he sounds generous in tone and proffers many thanks and gives her a hug.
The first thing you need to know about Paul Smith and the legacy that surrounds him is that it all stems from cycling. Not a readily obvious connection to fashion. But the former gave way to the latter in the form of a blessing in disguise. “I received a bicycle for my birthday when I was 12 from my parents and then I got into racing and my dream was to do that for a living. I had a crash when I was 17, broke lots of bones and ended up in hospital for three months.
When I came out of hospital, a couple of the lads I had met there kept in touch and one of them chose to meet in a pub in my hometown of Nottingham which was where the art students went. I got to know other people at the pub too, architecture, fine art and photography students and I eventually helped one of them open up a little clothes shop – doing the windows, running things – I was only 18. Eventually I met Pauline who became my girlfriend and then wife and that was the main turning point because she studied fashion at the Royal College of Art during those heady days when David Hockney was there. It was interesting because at that time they taught you how to make couture – how to actually make clothes. It’s not just about design anymore, it’s about marketing yourself. In the evenings Pauline used to show me how to cut a pattern, how to make a shirt. I went to a night school for tailoring, it was all very artisan, very real and that’s why we have such an important suit and tailoring business for both men and women now,” he says.
It later became a story of Paul and Pauline, grafting together to produce the brand that it’s become today with many ideas and so much energy between them. Paul’s spontaneity is palpable – his style alone confirms this. He’s wearing blue pinstripe trousers and a jacket with a denim shirt on the inside, and then neon coloured trainers, like a happy accident, much like his first foray into fashion. One day Pauline had said, “well why don’t you open up a little shop of your own? You’ve got so many ideas and so much energy” and with all but around £600 Paul eventually found a three by three metre shop in Nottingham.
Most of the clothes that were in the shop at the time were made by Pauline.
“But I just knew that I couldn’t earn a living from that because it was too particular,
especially for a provincial town.” With that Paul proved his design mettle and began
freelancing as a designer, working as a stylist, building himself from the ground up.
The little shop soon procured big recognition. “People from Leicester and beyond found out that we had things you couldn’t find anywhere else,” he recalls. The shop’s “different, odd, unusual” status is what Paul claims is the reason for his being where he is today. It just caught on in the right way.
The preeminent brand today is a mix of classic tailoring with punchy cuts for both men and women. Historically, the British suit is lauded the world over – men look to Paul Smith for style notes on heritage and tradition and perhaps with that comes an unavoidable ‘stiff upper lip’ notion too. But Paul has revolutionised what could have been stuffy dressing into dynamic and vivid pieces that still pay homage to the British gentry. The women’s wear is equally modern and chic with unexpected pops and playful meshes.
This puts into question the disparity between High Fashion and Ready-To-Wear. Paul Smith is famously wearable and down-to-earth, like the man himself. “We do two fashion shows in London every year and two in Paris as well, so from that point of view it’s considered runway fashion, some of our shops are next to PRADA and the likes. We also sell in 73 countries. But I think my background has played a part too, even with this posh collection around us, there’s the sweater that will go with 20 different bottoms, there’s trousers that go with 20 different tops.” The brand is incredibly democratic too, there’s no ‘branding’ as such. So it’s not a show-offs calling. “I like people to like the clothes because they like the clothes not because it’s from a particular brand. Branding is a symbol of ‘I’m wealthy and I’m fashionable’ whereas I just like people. I don’t only like wealthy people, or people from a certain country. I’m very happy to sell to an 80 year old, a student or a rock star.”
Having left school at 15 and had a business up and running by the time he was in his early twenties, Paul’s got grit – but soft grit. He asks me, as we draw to a close, what my schedule has been like during Fashion Week. I tell him the usual deadline, sleep deprivation story. “Well don’t have a nervous breakdown, it’s not worth it darling. Life’s too short,” he says. “You live it well, don’t you?” I say, and he quietly nods with a small smile.
Editor in Chief