One of the few British-based fashion designers to combine commercial success with critical credibility, Paul Smith (1946–) is renowned for his idiosyncratic take on traditional British styling — 'classics with a twist' — both in his fashion collections and his shops.
Paul Smith fell into fashion by accident. As a jobless 15 year-old who had left school with no qualifications, he was frogmarched by Harold Smith, his father, into a Nottingham clothing warehouse one day and forced to take a job there as an errand boy.
That was back in the 1960s. Smith, who once described himself as being ‘okay at design and okay at business but exceptional at neither’, has since become Britain's most consistently successful fashion designer whose products are sold in over 200 shops and through 500 wholesale customers in Japan alone, where his label out-sells every other European designer.
Born in Nottingham in 1946, Paul Smith remembered his family home a few miles outside the city centre as ‘always very comfortable... excellent mum, quirky dad, an always stable, good relationship’. When he left school at 15, his only ambition was to become a racing cyclist until his father hauled him off to the clothing warehouse. ‘When I look back I realise how influenced I was by Nottingham,’ wrote Smith years later. ‘I'd cycle around, there'd be the coal miners, Derby tweeds and the elegance of the country squires. My brother worked for the Post Office and wore that blue cotton drill GPO shirt.’
During his first two years at the warehouse, Smith had no real interest in his work there except for the cycle journey to and from his home. It was only after an accident ended his dreams of becoming a racing cyclist, that he flung himself into his job. ‘Just by chance I met a lot of people from the art college and became interested in things like art and fashion,’ he recalled. ‘Back at the warehouse I started to make displays in the showroom... The boss was really impressed and he gave me all the buying to do for the menswear when I was still only 17.’
When a friend from art college decided to open a fashion boutique in Nottingham, Smith found the premises, decorated them and ran the shop as its manager. By 1970, encouraged by his girlfriend Pauline Denyer, he felt ready to go it alone by ploughing his £600 savings into Paul Smith Vêtement Pour Homme on Byard Lane, a shabby back alley. The rent was 50p a week: just as well given that the first week's takings came to £52. Open only on Fridays and Saturdays, the shop was scented with Christian Dior Eau Sauvage to overpower the smell of Smith's Afghan hound. During the rest of the week, Smith made ends meet from freelance jobs as a window dresser, tailor and stylist. In the evenings, he signed up for a fashion design course.
The only shop outside London to sell labels like Kenzo and Margaret Howell, Paul Smith Vêtement also started selling the pieces that Smith designed himself and had made by local manufacturers. Then, as now, his clothes were inspired by the traditional British menswear he admired: everything from his brother's Post Office shirts and the tweeds of the Nottinghamshire county set, to the imported US jeans and bespoke suits in unusual blues or greens that he wore himself. ‘The hardest thing was justifying the name 'designer' for myself when I only made such simple clothes. I ended up designing clothes that I wanted to wear myself and felt good in. Well-made, good quality, simple cut, interesting fabric, easy to wear. No-bullshit clothing.’
By 1974, the shop had outgrown its back alley and Smith moved to bigger premises on the main street. Two years later, he showed his collection in Paris for the first time and searched for a London shop, finally finding it in a tiny bakery in the then run-down Covent Garden. ‘The area was completely empty at the time — there was just the Tube and a fruit shop. It took me six months to find out who owned it; it turned out to be a retired baker... I asked if he would sell it and he said he would for about £30,000. I went to Barclays (Bank) in Nottingham and asked if they would lend me £5,000 or £10,000, but the manager didn't like the fact that I had long hair and a red scarf, and wouldn't lend me anything. Then I went to the Yorkshire Bank in Nottingham and they lent me £10,000. My tailor lent me £10,000 and then I went to the baker and said that I only had £20,000... I think he lent me some and I got it for around £25,000 in the end.’
Having bought the shop, Smith didn't have enough cash to do it up. Three years later he did and the tatty old bakery fittings were stripped out and the shop spruced up into a stark, elegant Le Corbusier-inspired style. As well as clothes, Smith sold quirky penknives, notebooks and pens that he picked up on his travels. His most inspired 'find' was the Filofax, a leatherbound personal organiser he unearthed at Norman & Hill, a tiny company hidden under an East London railway arch.
When the neighbouring shop came up for sale, Smith bought it. As he ‘didn't have the heart’ to rip out the lovely old wooden fittings, he patched them up instead. The extra space was used to sell more idiosyncratic things — old Beano annuals, first-edition books and, after he began travelling to Japan in 1982, comical Japanese toys and gadgets — alongside Smith's clothes. He filled the windows with furniture by designer friends like Tom Dixon and James Dyson's G-Force vacuum cleaner. As a young designer, Marc Newson stopped by to show Smith a watch in the hope of persuading him to sell it. ‘Paul said: ‘It's a nice watch, but it's not a nice price’', recalled Newson. ‘He was right. It was too expensive. That was an important lesson for me.’
By then, Smith has coined a phrase to describe his style, 'classic with a twist'. ‘I take ingredients from upper-class tailoring, hand-made suits and so on, and bring them together with something silly,’ he explained. ‘So I might bring together a beautiful suit with a denim short. Or use floral prints inspired by old-fashion seed packets for men's shirts, or line tailored jackets with flamboyantly coloured silks, or ask a factory which specialises in V-necked school sweaters to knit them in crazy colours.’
‘It is as though he possesses some inner equivalent of the Houndsditch Clothes Exchange — not a museum, but a vast, endlessly recombinant jumble sale in which all the artefacts of his nation and culture constantly engage in a mutual exchange of code,’ wrote the US novelist William Gibson of the Paul Smith style.
Smith has since stuck to the same formula, for both his collections and shops, as his wholesale business has expanded and he has opened more shops in Asia, the US and Europe while diversifying into everything from womenswear and watches to perfume. The shops are still filled with first-edition books like Cecil Beaton's autobiographies, 1960s posters and quirky Japanese flea market finds: and their windows are as likely to display Apple's new computer or the latest video games system as Paul Smith clothes.
‘The reason I've been successful is because I've just got on and packed boxes and I know that VAT means Value Added Tax not vodka and tonic,’ Paul Smith wrote in his book, You Can Find Inspiration in Everything. ‘I've sold on the shop floor, I've typed invoices. At some point I've done everything, and I've always kept my head above water financially. Nevertheless I'm extremely nervous about becoming a businessman and not a designer.’
How did you get started?
It measured just 3 x 3 metres and had no windows — it was a room but we called it a shop. It was called ‘Paul Smith Vêtements Pour l’Homme’, and opened in 1970 at 6 Byard Lane, Nottingham. I had an Afghan hound called Homer. He was the shop manager — we looked the same. Initially the shop was open only on Friday and Saturday; the rest of the week I was doing anything to earn some money. It is important to have a dream but also to be able to support that dream — in my case it was supported by doing many freelance jobs. The shop went from being a single back room on a Nottingham back alley to a proper shop at 10 Byard Lane with staff and open six days a week. My first showroom was a bedroom in a Paris hotel and my first collection comprised of just six shirts, two jumpers and two suits, which I laid out on a bed covered in black felt. Only one person turned up at the end of the final day but they placed an order — that was the beginning of my business. My first show in Paris was in a friend’s flat on the Boulevard Vaugirard. They let us move out all their furniture, we wrote to people to ask them to come, we had models and helpers who were all friends, and music — the champagne came from the local supermarket. It was very crowded, very successful and really exciting. Now we have four fashion shows a year: two for men in Paris and two for women in London. We also show our clothes in our showrooms in Milan, Paris, New York, Tokyo and London. I am not a big fan of fashion shows but they are a necessary part of the theatre of fashion and the final ingredient of a recipe that’s been cooking on the stove for six months. The purpose of the show is to put our clothes in front of the journalists and the buyers from around the world, but this is just part of the process.
Tell us about your passion for collecting.
I have been collecting prints and photographs since I was a teenager. My collection includes famous artists such as Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Banksy, but also works which have been sent to me by friends, family and unknown enthusiasts since the 1990s. The collection is displayed on the walls and basement of my office in Covent Garden, London. I work in Covent Garden and my office is crammed full of objects — I have a desk which I have never sat at because it is totally covered in things. The only tidy surface in my office is a huge rosewood table that is always empty. The rest of my office is a madhouse — there are books, bicycles, cameras, rabbits, robots, kitsch things, letters, bills, and bits and bobs all over the place. Many things I have picked up on my travels across the globe, things that interest or amuse me. I receive many gifts and letters through the post each day from unknown admirers all over the world. The office is the equivalent of my brain. From all the things accumulated in my office, one idea will form and be the inspiration for a new collection or for the design of a new shop.
Take us inside your head.
Ideas can come from anywhere — you can take inspiration from anything. Literally anything can spark off an idea. I keep track of the countless images and ideas that come into my head with a digital camera and a notebook that I fill with sketches, words and telephone numbers. I have an extensive photographic archive that reflects how I find inspiration from observing — people look, but so often they don’t see. The design studio is where ideas are created. We will use many things as references — films, artists, photography, general observation. Colour is important — this could mean printing familiar things in unexpected colours. We are famous for our print, and in particular, our stripes which are all developed in our design studio in Covent Garden. We develop our stripes by winding coloured yarn around cardboard which slowly builds up to create a stripe. In this way we can see how colours work together and how the balance of the stripe will work on a garment. We are working constantly to design three clothing collections for women and four clothing collections for men; the print design alone takes up a lot of my attention.
Describe your relationship with photography.
I have been taking photographs since I was eleven; photography is one of my hobbies. My father was an amateur photographer and founding member of the camera club in Beeston, Nottingham. He inspired my passion for photography. I have a camera with me at all times. I am always taking photographs wherever I am in the world — it’s my visual diary. Many famous photographers have shot our advertising campaigns — David Bailey, Julian Broad, Hugh Hales-Tooke, Sandro Sodano, Mario Testino and others. A few years ago it was suggested that I take photographs for the campaigns, which is something I have done ever since. I constantly strive for individuality — we never work to a formula.
Collaborations have been a hallmark of your career. What’s the secret of a successful partnership?
I find collaborations stimulating and challenging. One of my first collaborations was with the car manufacturer, Rover, on a Mini. Since then, we have designed cameras, rugs, motorbikes, bicycles, snowboards and much, much more. Our strength has always been to know what to say ‘no’ to, as well as ‘yes’.
Why are your shops are all totally different from each other?
I hate shops that all look the same — I love individuality. We design all our own shops. I want each of them to have its own character and one which reflects its setting in some way. When I opened my first London shop in 1976 at 43 Floral Street, Covent Garden, it was one of the few minimalist shops in Europe. People were surprised to find a shop selling a Dieter Rams designed Braun calculator, a pink Dyson vacuum cleaner and a Filofax, as well as clothes. This is something we continue today setting beautifully tailored clothing next to vintage and contemporary books, art and collectables - a shop in which you can find interesting objects and surprises. Every Paul Smith shop is different with a unique design approach behind each one. The shops offer something completely modern but with a sense of traditional values in the way that customers are treated. I like the smell of beeswax polish, the feeling that someone cares. When you come into a Paul Smith shop, even if you don’t buy anything, you should have a pleasant and memorable experience.
Talk us through your collections.
We produce twenty-eight collections a year. Inspiration for a collection can come from anywhere — an art book in my office, a market in India, a church in Lithuania, traditional dress from Guatemala. I am much more interested in finding the key idea and choosing the right fabrics and colours. My clothes are rooted in tradition and express modernity — ‘classic with a twist’. I like my clothes to hold a secret — a sober grey suit with a brightly coloured lining, ties with unexpected linings. The clothes in this section have been purposely grouped into four main themes that have inspired my work, rather than by year. My designs often draw on very British traditions and motifs. Past collections have referenced, for example the British postage stamp, rock ‘n’ roll, the Women’s Land Army, British poets, artists and eccentrics and much, much more. I am frequently travelling, which influences everything that the company does. My work is influenced by travel — past collections have featured Afghan jackets, Chinese sequinned cheongsams, Indian embroidered velvet kaftans and men’s shirts printed with the names of Buenos Aires barrios. Every year I make at least two trips to Japan, which is one of our most important markets. I go on regular fabric buying trips to Italy and France. Print has always been a hugely important feature in my collections. It started as a way of adding individuality to menswear, pairing a simple navy suit with a floral shirt. I was one of the first designers to use the photographic print technique on fabric. Imagery for shirts has ranged from apples, leaves, flowers, clouds, budgies, kittens, jellyfish, to a plate of plastic spaghetti. Over the years, print has extended to T-shirts, bags, and scarves, as well as jacket linings. We are famous for adding colour. My stripes have been so popular because they are colourful — colour makes people happy. If used in the right way, colour can add interest and express positivity. Colour has been added to classic garments in the form of linings, or simply as punctuation marks.
Paul Smith is born
First shop opens at 6 Byard Lane, Nottingham
First Paul Smith collection is shown in Paris
First London shop opens at 44 Floral Street, Covent Garden, WC2
Second London shop opens at 23 Avery Row, W1
Third London shop opens at 43 Floral Street, Covent Garden, WC2
Paul Smith Ltd. signs licence with Japanese company, American Jacket
First New York shop opens at 108 Fifth Avenue Fourth London shop opens at 41/42 Floral Street, Covent Garden, WC2
First London showroom opens at 7/8 Langley Court, Covent Garden, WC2
Smith receives ‘Royal Designer for Industry’ award Flagship shop opens in Tokyo making a total of 60 shops in Japan
Sales/Press office opens in Paris
Sales/Press office opens in Milan
First Paris shop opens at 22 Boulevard Raspail
Launch of the first Paul Smith Women’s collection, Spring Summer 1994
Smith awarded CBE for his services to fashion design
Launch of Spectacles collection
Launch of Luggage collection
Launch of Watch collection
Paul Smith Ltd. awarded the ‘Queen’s Award for Enterprise: International Trade’
Paul Smith True Brit exhibition at the Design Museum in London
Launch of the Paul Smith website — paulsmith.co.uk
Paul Smith True Brit exhibition in Glasgow as part of Festival of Design
Smith awarded the Honorary Freedom of the City of Nottingham
Paul Smith True Brit exhibition at the Nottingham Castle Museum
Women’s shop opens at Sloane Avenue, South Kensington, SW3
First Women’s show at London Fashion Week
Launch of Paul Smith Mini ‘Art Car’ available in the UK and Japan only
Westbourne House opens at 122 Kensington Park Road, Kensington, W11
A bespoke tailoring service is offered for the first time at Westbourne House
Paul Smith True Brit exhibition travels to Japan (Tokyo, Kobe and Fukuoka)
Portrait of Paul Smith by James Lloyd, winner of the BP portrait award, unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery
Paul Smith Ltd. and Inter Parfums Inc. sign licensing agreement
Launch of ‘Paul Smith Men’ and ‘Paul Smith Women’ fragrances
Smith awarded a knighthood by HM the Queen
First shop opens in Milan, at Via Manzoni 13
You Can Find Inspiration in Everything book published by Violette Editions
Collaboration with The Rug Company
London showrooms and headquarters opens at 20 Kean Street, Covent Garden, WC2
Milan showroom and press office open at Viale Umbria, 95
Smith judges at the Design Museum ‘Designer of the Year’ award
Smith wins the ‘Menswear Designer of the Year’ and ‘Contemporary Designer of the Year’ at the British Fashion Awards
Collaboration with Maharam
Launch of the Paul Smith e-commerce site
Smith receives the ‘Great Britons Award for Business’
Collaboration with Triumph motorbikes First Los Angeles shop opens at 8221 Melrose Avenue
Sales/Press office opens in Sydney, Australia
Tokyo flagship shop Space opens in Shibuya
New York flagship shop opens at 142 Greene Street
Collaboration with Penguin Classics to create a limited-edition cover for Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence Broadway Cinema
Nottingham opens the Paul Smith Auditorium
Design Museum exhibition, 2013
Hello, My Name is Paul Smith
Image credit: Luke Hayes
From his company’s modest beginnings in Nottingham to its international prominence today, this exhibition reveals how Paul Smith’s intuitive take on design, together with an understanding of the roles of designer and retailer, have laid the foundations for lasting success and offers a unique insight into the magnificent mind of Paul Smith.
shop the collection