Fashion

Paul Smith: Simplicity And The Classics Are What Will Stand the Test of Time

The legendary designer on what it takes to evolve his quintessentially English brand.
IMAGE courtesy of Paul Smith
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For someone who claims he grew up with hardly any interest in fashion, Paul Smith has certainly made an indelible contribution to it. As a child, his true ambition was to be a racing cyclist—in fact, his earliest style memory has an athletic spin. “I got a green high-button Italian-style suit. I think I must have been about 16 or 17 then, and it was called the San Marino,” he recalls. And so, upon his father’s encouragement, he took on a job at a clothing warehouse in his native Nottingham, England after dropping out of school as a teenager so he could pursue his cycling dreams. 

Unfortunately, a biking accident forced him to give up the sport for good. This proved to be an act of serendipity, as it was during his recovery that he agreed to meet fellow patients for a drink at a pub where students from a local art college converged. The lively discussions on the artistic and cultural movements prevalent at the time (mind you, this was the '60s) made him rethink his approach to fashion, something he had only, until that point, regarded “in a very modest way.” He hasn’t looked back since. 

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To this day, he refers to the opening of his very first shop, a humble little space in his hometown that he says measured only three meters square, as a “magical” moment in his career. “My business has always grown really carefully and gently,” he says. And from that very first Paul Smith boutique back in 1970 to the global retail powerhouse it is today—with his brand currently present in numerous countries (including, of course, Manila) and everything from rugs to children’s wear to china bearing his name—Smith still can’t help but be amazed at how far he has come. “To be honest, I never really think about it too much because if I did, I would be petrified,” he admits. “But in fashion, you’ve never really made it. You’re only as good as today or tomorrow.” 

It’s this determination to continue growing with his ever-more-savvy consumers that has kept the brand fresh over the years, while staying true to its British roots. Though Smith says that, in the beginning, he designed clothing with mostly creative types in mind—“architects, actors, musicians,” he lists—these days, he has learned to direct his vision toward an increasingly international audience. “Because my collections are available in more countries and through many more shops than before, the creative person still exists in many ways. But also, it has broadened to people that are interested in fashion that is not too outrageous but has a point of view.”

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So while he is drawn to color because it is “optimistic and happy,” and his work is inspired by an enthusiasm for photography—what would Paul Smith be, after all, without those iconic rainbow-hued stripes and dizzying, quirky prints?—as Smith’s aesthetic has matured, so has his perspective. He notes that it is actually the simple, basic pieces in his collections that are the most successful. In fact, the single essential item he would recommend every man have in his closet is a classic navy blue suit.

“This will work for you in your wardrobe across many different occasions,” he says. “The rules are very much about knowing your body, shape, age, and lifestyle, and dressing accordingly. A lot of people, unfortunately, try to dress too young for their age or inappropriately for their lifestyle or their figure or shape, and this doesn’t work. So try to keep it simple.”

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That brings us to the real reason why Paul Smith endures: the man knows how to make a crazy good suit. Impeccably tailored, soft to the touch, and so comfortable that you can slip into them with ease, his suits are guaranteed to become a wardrobe staple you’ll reach for time and time again. But true to the cheeky, irreverent style that he has come to be known for, he encourages you to find your own way to wear it. “A lot of people have been wearing our suit jackets or suit trousers separately, which is a look I like a lot. I do dress people like Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman, and they both dress in Paul Smith in a way that I really like—an eclectic mix of beautiful quality suits with denim shirts, this mix of beautiful and basic that I love.”        

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Nana Caragay
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