Paul Smith: The Reinvention of British Sartorial Tradition

If there is one fashion designer that the vast majority of men all over the world would not hesitate to define as the personification of contemporary British tailoring, that sartorial ambassador would undoubtedly be Paul Smith. In the business of fashion and design for over four decades, Paul Smith has grown his eponymous label to make it a household name while simultaneously securing a position as the most preeminent British menswear designer alive. As the Design Museum in London prepares to host a major exhibition about his work later in the year, and as a new flagship store opens in Albermarle Street in central London this summer, The Style Examiner looks back at Paul Smith’s career and his role in reinventing British menswear.

In spite of his undeniable present fame and impressive list of achievements in the fashion world, Paul Smith grew up more interested in sports than fashion, and it wasn’t until his father made him take his first job in a local clothing warehouse in his native city of Nottingham at age 16 that he first came into contact with the world of fabrics and designs. When, at the age of 18, he was recovering from a bicycle accident in hospital (cycling has been one of his major passions for years), he met a student from his local art college who introduced him to fellow colleagues and to the new realm of artistic and architectural movements and personalities that still largely influence him today (such as Pop Art, the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, or the world of photography as a medium to capture illusive realities). The friendships that stemmed from those encounters eventually convinced the young Paul Smith that there was more to the world of ideas and creativity than what met his inexperienced eye. In 1970, just a few years after developing his first connections in the art world, he opened his first boutique in Nottingham, a small space measuring just three by three meters. After taking tailoring classes during the evening and working hard to promote his business, he swiftly developed the Paul Smith label to the point that by 1976 he was already showing his menswear designs to buyers and journalists in Paris.

Paul Smith’s rising success has been undeniably astounding. From the company’s headquarters in London’s Covent Garden (where he shares his office space with a team of 180 people distributed across the five floors of an elegant red-brick building), these days Paul Smith commands a veritable empire of stores located in 66 countries (with 17 in the UK and over 200 in Japan alone) and representation in major fashion centres such as London, Paris, Milan, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Antwerp, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, UAE, and Korea. Today, the brand comprises 14 different collections, including Paul Smith for men and women, PS by Paul Smith, Paul Smith Jeans, Paul Smith London, R.Newbold (in Japan only), Paul Smith Black, Paul by Paul Smith, Paul Smith Accessories, and Paul Smith Shoes. Rugs, china, spectacles and fragrances are also profitable Paul Smith-branded goods produced under licence.

For Paul Smith, the ability to accept the influence of what surrounds people has always been paramount in the creative process. One of his mottos (that he often quotes and which he used for the title of one of his books) is that “you can find inspiration in everything”. His passion for the worlds of music and rock stars has been evident in designs inspired by the songs and personal style of David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Jimmy Hendrix. He is also known to wander London markets (particularly Portobello Road, a part of London close to his heart as it is situated near where he lived during his first years in the British capital) looking for inspiration from vintage clothes and accessories. Similarly, he collects objects from everywhere he travels and gathers them in his office; a fantastical eclectic space that resembles a private museum of eccentric curiosities. In addition to gathering symbolic mementos from his trips abroad, Smith is also know for writing down his thoughts and inspirations in bits of paper or notebooks that he has permanently available on him, in his office, or throughout his house, including a permanent one on his bedside table.

Despite the impressive presence of the brand on a gigantic international scale, Paul Smith strives to be involved in every aspect of the business. He contributes towards the promotional campaigns (some of which he personally photographs) and has a say in the architecture and interiors of his stores. This sharp design acumen was noted by London’s Design Museum that is hosting the first major retrospective of Paul Smith’s work later this year. The exhibition, scheduled to open on 20 November 2013, will explore how Smith’s intuitive take on design, coupled with an understanding of the importance between designer and retailer, have laid the foundations for the company’s lasting success. The display is expected to illustrate the different stages of design and production that lead to the presentation of a collection on the runway, offering insight into Paul Smith’s creative processes. The curators hope that visitors will be able to have a glimpse into Smith’s passions, his attention to detail and a look at a year in his life. The exhibition will also focus on what drives him as a designer, and the objects, people and places that have inspired him during his career. A section will also be dedicated to Paul Smith’s shop designs, from the bright pink building in Los Angeles’s Melrose Avenue to a Japanese garden at the heart of the Jingumae store in Tokyo.

In recent years, Paul Smith has accepted that fashion has evolved and that the traditional and faithful male customers of his ready-to-wear creations are getting older. To address the need to capture younger consumers, the brand has invested in a revitalised made-to-measure approach to tailoring and has developed creative partnerships with carefully selected brands such as Rapha (for a range of cycling clothes), Kashimax (bicycle components), Swami (to design surfboards) and Barbour (purveyors of very popular British heritage garments), resulting in making Paul Smith known to new segments of the market. In addition, the most recent collections have embraced a new aesthetic for a younger male with more ingenious patterns, brighter colours and innovative tailoring lines for different body shapes.

For his spring/summer 2013 menswear collection, for example, Smith has welcomed colour at all levels, with pale pastels, dusty blues and pinky taupes contrasting with black and also vibrant hues and patterns such as deep reds and prints of scissors and roses. In addition, Smith’s updated modern tailoring is present in slim jackets with structured shoulders and cinched waists to allow for definition without becoming bulky. Similarly, trousers are pleated and pegged with a cuffed cigarette shape to accentuate the silhouette. Shirts (very much a staple of Paul Smith’s collections) show a return to larger, longer and angular collar points and high neck lines. Slim silk black polka dot neckties complement the look, whereas laddered scissor-snipped knitwear or short zipped leather pieces allow for layering effects. In outerwear, waterproof reversible coats reveal raw edges and contrasting lining colour and footwear incorporates elevating heels to create an upright posture and, as a result, a more flattering silhouette.

Even though he is turning 67 years old this summer, there are no visible signs that Paul Smith will give his creative mind a rest any time soon or that his emblematic status as doyen of British menswear is to wane. The inclusion of his name, for the first time, in a recent poll by British GQ Magazine of the 100 most influential men in Britain confirms his enduring reputation. During the 40 years in which he has been involved in the fashion industry, many other men’s fashion designers have come and gone but, in the global perception of what defines contemporary British tailoring, Paul Smith remains an irreplaceable figure.