Paul Smith has always been among my favourite designers. Partly, it is because I have worn his clothes for over two decades now and love them. But mostly it is because of what he represents: the triumph of the talented hard-working individual at a time when fashion has become the business of conglomerates.
And then, there’s Smith the man. Most world famous fashion designers have entourages, battalions of assistants and sinister-looking, hatchet-faced PRs who tell you what you can ask the designer and what you can’t.
Smith, on the other hand, is content to be himself. I interviewed him for Brunch some years ago at his office in London and was struck by how unaffected he was. Last Monday, I caught up with him again at the Delhi Aman for breakfast. Smith was on a hectic one-day trip to India and breakfast was about the only slot in his schedule that had not been previously booked for interviews, photo shoots, events etc.
Though we were due to meet at 8.30 am, I arrived fifteen minutes early having allowed for traffic which, as it turned out, I did not encounter. When I got out of the car, I noticed a familiar figure standing on the porch. It was Smith himself. He had finished his morning routine (a visit to the gym and – I’m guessing here – a swim) early and said that he had decided to wait for me on the porch, seeing as he had nothing else to do.
I’d only slightly recovered from the shock of being received by Smith when he sprung another surprise. “Nice shirt,” he said. “It was 1992, wasn’t it?”
Indeed it was. I’d bought the shirt at his Floral Street shop in London two decades ago and – like most of Smith’s clothes – it had stood the test of time. “We made five shirts from that fabric,” he recalled. “There was another brown shirt with a different pattern. There was a green shirt…” (I had bought three of the five so I knew what he was talking about.)
“Do you remember every shirt you have designed?” I asked, slightly gobsmacked at his powers of recall.
“Most of them, yes,” he responded. “In this case I designed the pattern and we had the fabric made for us at a mill in France. It’s the fabric really that keeps the shirts still looking the way they did when we first made them.”
As we began on breakfast (coffee and toast with Marmite for him), we talked about the early days. Smith is a self-taught designer who opened his first London shop in the early 1980s. I told him that I’d first heard of him soon after that shop opened when Paul McCartney told an interviewer that he was wearing a Paul Smith suit.
“Paul was very good to me,” Smith remembered. “He was playing at the Hammersmith Odeon and phoned and asked if I could come to his dressing room with some clothes. So I thought about it, picked out some things and made combinations that I thought he could wear. I got to the dressing room, laid out the clothes and asked which ones he liked. But he just took one look and said “I’ll take them all” and asked “do you want some tea?” And then, Paul McCartney made me a cup of tea and a cheese sandwich in his dressing room.”
Smith’s life is full of such encounters with the famous but unlike most designers who long to dress the A-list and fight to get their creations on to the red carpet, you get the sense that Smith doesn’t really care who wears his clothes as long as they wear them well.
Celebrity does not turn him on at all. Neither, oddly enough, does money. While he is well-known in America, he could be much bigger there if he would make the design compromises necessary to crack the Middle American market. But Smith has always refused to change his style: “It sounds strange but I’ve never really worried about how much money I make. That isn’t why I do it.”
But then, he doesn’t need America because he has Japan. He first went to Tokyo in 1984 and felt an instant bond with the country. A joint venture with the giant C Itoh Company followed and now, Paul Smith is one of Japan’s biggest clothing labels with 265 stores in the country. The Japanese just can’t seem to get enough of Smith.
And Smith loves Japan. He likes the slight eccentricity that Japanese people bring to fashion and remembers how, when he was starting out, meetings would sometimes splutter to a halt because of the language barrier. At that stage he would put his black suitcase on the table and open it while the Japanese watched curiously. The suitcase contained a train set complete with engine, carriages, tracks etc., and the Japanese were delighted by the Englishman who came to business meetings with his toy train. As he remembers, “Soon, at every meeting, they would say, halfway through ‘Oh Paul San, where is your black suitcase?’ And of course, I would pull out the train set.”
Smith likes doing the unexpected. Over a decade ago he created a splash with a collection of beautiful shirts made from the finest cotton fabric adorned with kitschy buttons made from small steel charms. “I like mixing the rough with the smooth; classic with kitsch,” he says. “That’s what gives clothes an edge.”
Another innovation was the shirts with French cuffs which had patterns and pictures on the inside of each cuff. Sometimes, these were plain patterns. But often the pictures could be risqué. On one famous occasion, Tony Blair’s people came into one of Smith’s shops and bought some gorgeous, formal shirts for the Prime Minister to take with him on a foreign trip. It never occurred to the Blair people to check the underside of the cuffs.
Nor, apparently, did it occur to Blair himself. And so, he went off to meet the President of Russia wearing a Paul Smith shirt under his suit. The trouble was that when the cuff poked out from under his jacket, people noticed that it had a picture of a naked woman. The British press had a field day with that one!
Over the last decade however, Paul Smith has been best known for the signature multi-coloured stripes that first become the brand’s signature (you found them on the shopping bags, on the packaging for the fragrances, on the crockery etc) and then, were so widely ripped off by other designers that they became a standard feature of men’s wear for a decade.
Smith invented the stripe by playing around with yarn. He never drew the design. Instead he would take a piece of cardboard and then wrap various coloured threads around it till he had the stripey look he needed. Initially, he intended it to be a one-season thing but when the style took off, customers kept demanding more and more.
Now, he says, he wants to bury the stripe. He accepts that it isn’t a logo like say, the Burberry check or the Vuitton monogram because each striped pattern is different but he is uncomfortable with the idea of a signature. He likes each collection to seem fresh and original without relying on a branding element.
It is a brave decision – much resented by his retailers who know that the stripe means big bucks – but it is somehow typical of Smith. He is that rare designer who appeals to all age groups with a range that goes from the trendy shirts and ties of his PS label to Savile Row-style bespoke tailoring at his Notting Hill shop. As far as he is concerned, there is nothing worse than becoming a prisoner of branding or a signature look.
Plus, there are always the other projects. Last year, he got a call from Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the artistic director of Hermès who wanted Smith to do something with John Lobb, the English shoemaker owned by Hermès. Smith liked the idea, and has now designed a whole range of shoes for Lobb, sticking to traditional English styles with the characteristic Paul Smith twist.
In a sense, the Paul Smith company is to Britain what Hermès is to France. It values craftsmanship and originality over branding. (Just as Smith worries about becoming a prisoner of the stripe, Pierre-Alexis worries about his company becoming too closely associated with only the Birkin). Like Hermès, Paul Smith is family-owned (by Smith and his wife) with no debt. Like Hermès, it has ventured into furniture and home products with great success. And it is run by people who (like Pierre-Alexis and his late father, the great Jean-Louis Dumas) still see themselves as creators first and businessmen second.
It was as a creator that Smith first came to India, seeking inspiration in the juxtaposition of colours and patterns that is characteristic of our country. Now, he is back selling clothes to Indians. His first shop at Delhi’s Emporio will soon be joined by a second outlet at Bombay’s Palladium mall. I could be wrong but my guess is that his clothes have not had the impact they deserve in India – or the impact they have in the rest of the world – because local customers don’t know enough about the brand.
It will take a few more visits like this one for Indians to understand what Paul Smith is about. And to know more about the remarkable man who is at the centre of the brand.
HT Brunch, April 29
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