The man who brought colors back in fashion, Sir Paul Smith has embraced the past 50 years with his characteristic wit, humor and a non-conformist sense of style which is still unique.
By: Tripti Jangpangi
Posted on: January 22, 2021
Sir Paul Smith, Britain’s foremost designer, started Paul Smith Vêtements Pour Homme in Nottingham on October 9, 1970 – a multibrand store for menswear - and has never looked back since. It became a global business across 5 continents, over 70 countries and 3000 shops. Paul Smith proudly remains an independent company, with Sir Paul Smith holding the majority stake. Each creation is imbued with a touch of British humor: unusual but never frivolous, eccentric but never without exuberance.
Sir Paul Smith's adventures with a cycle still play a role in his life
His childhood dream was to become professional cyclist, but unfortunately he met with a road accident when he was 17. Fortunately for the fashion world, he ended up in a hospital for a couple of months, which was housing a lot of students from art and design schools. That intrigued him about pursuing a creative career, embarking on a life-long journey of discovery and exploration in design, music and fashion. It was destiny that chose his path to become part of a hyper exclusive fashion community.
Sir Smith often emphasises the crucial role of Pauline, his wife, in his understanding of visual arts and cinema. He gives immense credit to her training at the Royal College of Art which was instrumental in developing his own skill in tailoring and garment design. In an interview, Sir Smith fondly described his humble beginnings, how he was taught by Pauline to cut garments in the kitchen, giving all the credit to her for his success. Their relationship is a great example of true partnership.
In 1976, Sir Smith travelled to Paris to showcase his first men’s collection, which featured a mix of casual and semi-formal wear. In 1979, he opened his first flagship London store on Floral Street in Covent Garden. He believed that the quality of the fabric and the impeccable tailoring were the fundamental pillars of their success in a time where other brands were cutting corners in terms of craftmanship and quality.
There was no stopping him from there. Sir Smith became a creative spirit, combining the classic sophistication of British tradition with the flowing, hippie, eye-popping fashion that was gripping the young in that era. Indeed, Paul Smith’s signature motif is that of multicolored stripes, which has adorned many of its products in unusual, but extremely captivating way!
Such was his popularity that many women would come into his menswear store and buy smaller sizes for themselves! This prompted the inventive designer to launch his first womenswear collection in 1993.
An iconic 'Menu Skirt' from Paul Smith that made news
Beginning with one men’s collection, Paul Smith today caters to men, women and children, shoes, accessories, fragrance and home furnishings. Throughout its development, Sir Paul Smith’s values of curiosity, quality and authenticity have remained constant.
The Paul Smith Foundation to support next generation creatives
To celebrate the brand’s 50 years, Sir Smith announced Paul Smith’s Foundation in September 2020 to support and aid creative people to grow their own business, across nine different categories, including ‘Defining your Point of View’, ‘Making an Impression’ and ‘Learning by Doing’. The career counselling is not only limited to fashion designers, but even aspiring chefs or publishers with a creative and entrepreneurial spirit can stand to benefit.
The Foundation will evolve over time, with plans for new resources to be added to the website and social media channels periodically. At a time when funding for the arts and access to education is at an all time low, Sir Smith’s unconventional approach, tried and tested methods and enduring success can help guide emerging talent towards growing their own sustainable businesses and fulfilling careers.
Portraits of 50 Objects in collaboration with Phaidon
Another initiative marking the 50th anniversary is the launch of an eponymous book published by Phaidon, which will celebrate Sir Smith’s varied inspirations through portraits of fifty objects, including the bicycle he crashed at aged 17 and a Union Jack silk screen which he used to print T-shirts in the 1960s. It is edited by Tony Chambers, with a foreword by Jonathan Ive and weaves together the selected objects along with quotes and contributions from many of Sir Smith’s friends and collaborators from across his fifty years in business.
The Spaghetti Capsule Collection
Paul Smith is also offering a capsule collection of casual menswear and womenswear which looks into the vast back-catalogue of photo prints that Paul Smith has created over the years. The collection represents archived graphics spanning from 1988 to 2002 to offer a snapshot of Sir Smith’s vivid approach to design. Paul Smith was the first to launch photographic printing in the 1980s. The spaghetti print was an instant iconic print introduced in autumn/winter ’94 collection inspired by a fake spaghetti plate bought in Tokyo.
In 1990s, Paul Smith launched the famous apple print inspired by an post office in Vienna built by the architect Otto Wagne and the art work by Bauhaus and Le Corbusier. Floral has been a recurring theme for Paul Smith, inspired by seed packets, vintage floral prints and flowers.
Introducing the capsule collection, Paris-based creative, Simon Nndjock, has created the campaign which explores the city with the help of a group of friends, dressed in the spaghetti print. Five young designers reinterpreted, remixed and reworked elements from the world of Paul Smith, drawing fresh inspiration from fifty years of creativity. Argentinian photographer, Naguel Rivero, explores the relationship between tailoring, sculpture and the human body with a company of streetcast models photographed and filmed in a Parisian sculpture atelier.
A renovated Autumn Winter 2021 Collection
The pandemic has been a great game changer in the history of fashion, and Sir Paul Smith has yet again proved its resilience through by supporting next generation fashion designers and creatives, embracing different digital mediums such as podcasts to share insights with people and encouraging next generation art interpretations, through his collections.
Taking cues from the pandemic again, and how it has affected our style, our mood, and our needs, Paul Smith’s recently unveiled Autumn Winter 2021 collection is a retransformation of the brand’s much-loved classics.
Generously proportioned wool coats, sheepskins and a modern take on the donkey jacket speak to the 1980s’ new wave of romanticism. Mohair knits are part punk, part preppy. Stripes – the Smith signature – makes elegant appearances throughout the collection. Silk pajamas are confidently displayed, mixing a hint of 1970s psychedelia with the WFH mood of 2021. A part of the collection is an eclectic “Best Of” album where classics have been repackaged for a new generation.
The color palette includes rich, wintry greens, purples and browns, punctured by zesty highlights of lime, orange and pink. Floral prints create a sense of softness to sit in contrast with the utilitarian toughness of military jackets and heavy boots. A pioneer of floral print for men, Sir Smith innovates with 3D florals printed onto leather and woven into fabric. A modernised paisley revives another Paul Smith signature pattern, while a Hawaiian print reminds Sir Smith of the vintage shirts he used sell from his first Nottingham shop 50 years ago.
In an interview with Financial Times, Sir Paul Smith reminiscences his past, “For my fourth or fifth show, we held it in a minimal, raw-concrete space in Paris, and I had only models of colour, wearing colour – raspberry and Yves Klein Blue – and only played dub music. It was so different to what I’d done before, and I remember after the show finished, the buyers from Barneys in New York saying, ‘Paul, what on earth have you done?’ Luckily for me, it became my bestselling collection and set me off on a path that was more international as a designer, rather than just a British one.”
Sir Paul Smith in younger days
Sir Paul Smith has many fine characteristics that could teach much to entrepreneurs and fashion designers today – the need to stay curious, questioning everything; staying optimistic, vibrant; starting modest, growing organically; and most of all, staying true to oneself, your individuality, because that will take you the farthest.