Sir Paul Smith—multi-millionaire clothing impresario, avid art collector, and honorary member of the rock aristocracy (Eric Clapton, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger are friends)—occupies a place in the British fashion scene like no other. He has been known to describe himself as Savile Row meets Mr. Bean; he is the stereotypical dandy Englishman leading a double life as a foxy rogue, dressing every bit the part. He’s given to gesticulations and vivid facial expressions, which complement a keen sense of humour.
Behind the playful personality, Smith is an astute businessman. He is the chief executive, principal shareholder, and chief designer of the eponymous fashion brand he started in 1970. His first shop, in his hometown of Nottingham, was 24 square feet. “It wasn’t even a shop—it was a room, actually in a back alleyway,” he says. The shop was only open two days a week. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, I did anything I could to earn a living—and on Friday and Saturday, I had these two days of purity, and it didn’t matter if this shop didn’t work because I could pay the rent from the previous four days’ work.”
The Paul Smith brand has grown significantly since his first menswear collection. His first fashion show was in Paris in 1976 in a friend’s apartment. (“I didn’t have the money but all my mates were models, dressers, helpers … the lights were the car inspection lights that clipped on to the picture rail of the room … the champagne was from the supermarket … the music recorded myself.”) Now, he has 12 collections that include menswear, womenswear, furniture, watches, shoes, spectacles, and fragrances. The brand turns £345.9-million ($595-million Canadian) in revenues and boasts 100 stores worldwide (not including their 462 shop-in-shops).
Smith’s formula, if it can be categorized, is what he has always called “classic with a twist”, exemplified in, say, a playful lining hidden under the collar of a man’s jacket, a trompe l’oeil shirt and tie on a woman’s T-shirt, a fuchsia lining inside an otherwise sombre raincoat. It is a style so frequently imitated that attribution sometimes goes uncredited. What is often identified as a certain sort of British style is actually Paul Smith style.
In fact, the designer is very much an individual, and he abhors trends. “So many people in the industry are following each other, you are, like, buying yesterday’s newspaper—it already exists. I don’t look at other people’s work—I take my inspiration from the world of art, music, architecture, travel, and of course humans, which is very important to me.” Which makes the title of his book, You Can Find Inspiration in Everything (And If You Can’t, Look Again), particularly apt. He draws ideas from things as diverse as a Matisse painting, or the visual impressions he gets from walking the streets in Guatemala.
Smith’s individuality transcends his stores. Despite being located in 74 countries, “I strive to ensure that every Paul Smith store looks totally different,” he says. (The Los Angeles store, for example, is a bright pink-coloured modernist building.) “And the objects that we have in there are as important to me as the clothes. Of course I design the clothes—that’s how I earn my living—but the old curiosity shop aspect, that you never know what you are going to find knocking around in a Paul Smith, from a beautiful painting to a bootleg Dylan record or a brilliant tin robot, is the clincher. Someone said that walking ’round one of my stores was like being inside a Joseph Cornell box. I was dead chuffed.”