Sir Paul Smith’s Covent Garden office is a helpful visual clue to how the designer’s mind works. All manner of books – anthologies, biographies, photography tomes, fashion volumes, encyclopaedias, works as thick as slabs of granite – line the shelves that make up the back wall. They slide from desks, they are piled on windowsills. A veritable curiosity shop of toys is strewn across surfaces; origami creations dangle here and there; bikes (he has 17 in the office) are propped against sculptures and a two-metre high styrofoam iPod takes up floor space.
A cluster of balloons bobs quietly as people swish past; vinyl records sit alongside an old school record player; painted ceramic animals peer out amidst the clutter. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of Paul Smith’s sartorial informants: a snapshot of the disparate interests and ephemera that spark his interest. There’s a desk here somewhere, although it takes a degree of hunting to find it. ‘I’m a very spontaneous person, if I see something that catches my eye I can’t resist buying it,’ explains the designer.
As well as being spontaneous, Smith is a dynamo of energy. ‘I’ve been here since 6am,’ he says, and by all accounts that’s not unusual. Smith is a famously early riser, greeting the day at any time between 4am and 5am. With a knighthood and a CBE under his belt, and an empire that spans the globe, he shows no signs of wanting to take it easy. He’s fresh from his latest men’s show in Paris, presenting a collection for spring/summer 2017. ‘We make sure that my clients from 73 countries can always find the right white shirt and the right blue suit, but on the other side we have a fashion show. It costs a lot of money and takes 12 minutes to show the industry we have new ideas. So there are two sides to how we work.’
Top of his game
At a time when the British fashion industry is more acclaimed than ever, it’s remarkable to note just how long Smith has been at the top of his game. A rarity for retaining an independent brand rather than being absorbed into a luxury conglomerate, he opened his first small shop in Nottingham in 1970. Before long he turned to men’s tailoring, and in doing so helped spark a quiet revolution that still resonates today: the easing of men’s tailoring. ‘I wouldn’t compare my business to his because his is much bigger, but in the 1970s there was Giorgio Armani in Italy and Paul Smith in Britain both doing something different; relaxing the classic suit, changing the silhouette,’ recalls Smith.
Smith has always had a passion for cycling; his first ambition was to become a racing cyclist and, while his career has taken a very different turn, his love for the sport has remained. This longstanding love of life on two wheels inspired him to embark on a pioneering tailoring project a year ago: A Suit To Travel In. Crafted using technical wool from esteemed Italian fabric maker Loro Piana, the suits are designed with lightness and flexibility in mind, and are perfect for the office. This season, Smith expanded the range to encompass suits in bold colour. It’s a move that chimes with the trend for sports-luxe that’s come to dominate men’s style in the 21st century, as “athleisure” becomes a buzzword for houses from Milan to Manhattan. To demonstrate the fluidity of the range, Smith unveiled it on athletes, who leapt, cartwheeled and pole-vaulted while wearing the suits.
While this season is dominated by the 70s trend, Paul Smith has always mined the decade when he began his career in fashion. ‘If you wore a suit in the 1970s, you were either going for a job interview, to a wedding or a funeral,’ he observes. ‘But we realised that by changing the lining and softening the silhouette, we could change how people perceive suits. By the early 80s young people were wearing my suits and that has continued. Today we have clients who are buying their suits for their first jobs, their weddings – businessmen and rock stars both. It’s very diverse and that’s because our suits are very comfortable.’
It’s clear that, away from the catwalk theatrics, Smith has built a solid, substantial business. ‘We have clients in 73 countries. I’m happy to mix pattern and print together, play with colour, but we need to have a balance. It’s a seesaw effect; you might see a bright suit on the catwalk but you’ll also be able to get it in a classic colourway.’ It’s a remarkable feat for the boy from Nottingham who left school at 15. Whether you’re a banker in the city or a graduate readying himself for his first interview, Paul Smith’s clothes are a byword for reliable, informed style that will put the wearer at ease.