Paul Smith's unfussy tailoring couldn't be further from the trussed-up fops, who frequent the Pitti Immagine in Florence, beards and ankle socks in tow. But as the legendary British designer descended upon the menswear fair on Wednesday evening with his diffusion line PS by Paul Smith, you couldn't help but notice some similarities between these two fashion institutions. Like Pitti, which always seeks to renew and reinvent itself every season by handing young designers a platform to showcase their work while still celebrating the establishment such as Paul Smith, Sir Paul has never rested on his laurels throughout his fifty-plus years in the business. "Fashion is about today and tomorrow. Many of the brands that were starting out when I was starting out sadly don't exist anymore because they get arrogant, they put their back in the chair, and before you know it someone is overtaking you in the fast lane," he said at his presentation at Florence's Dogana building. "It's all about reassessing, it's all about working a hundred percent—or stopping. Not ninety percent, not eighty percent. Nothing or a hundred percent."
And so, Sir Paul decided it was time to revisit Florence - only a stone's throw from his summerhouse near Luca - in a grand demonstration of the PS by Paul Smith line's focus on performance and activity. Dancers illustrated the functionality and durability of each garment through beautiful choreography set to the tones of David Bowie, Prince and George Michael - who all died in 2016 - from a suit designed to cycle in to a waterproof parka and the Stay-Sharp trouser. "It's £115 in the shop. And it's really nice for the kids sitting around my table," he noted, referring to his young design team, "who live in an apartment with a few mates. They stick that in the washing machine at night, take it out and put it on the radiator. It doesn't need any ironing, it's ready to wear." By taking his presentation to Pitti, Sir Paul wasn't simply redefining his diffusion line but making a statement about menswear consumption on its most hallowed stage.
"I think the whole pattern of people buying fashion has changed so radically. So many people are spending their money in different ways, on experiences, i.e. going to Chile or Patagonia or somewhere up a mountain. We will still sell lots of suits and shirts, but I was having a meeting with my design staff the other day and none of the boys had a shirt on—they just had a sweater and trousers on," he reflected. Surrounding himself with the young people he invests in on so many levels is key to this designer's constant evolution and ageless point of departure. At 70 and with one of the biggest personal fortunes in Britain, Sir Paul doesn't lock himself in an ivory tower. On the contrary, he's taking active part in an industry that has changed radically over the past two years with the emergence of brands such as Vetements, Gosha Rubchinskiy and the British brand Cottweiler, which is headlining Pitti on Thursday evening—and he knows all about them.
"What's so interesting is, before last year, I've never ever previously had a conversation with any of my young staff about the worry of the world, politics, things that are happening with terrorism," Sir Paul said. "They all used to just talk about a new movie or their boyfriend or what they did last night, but now it's affecting everybody. It's a very difficult period and you feel very uneasy about it. That's why optimistic, happy things with a use, that don't feel flippant, matter." Paul Smith might not be an avant-garde Instagram label, and Pitti Immagine might not be a warehouse on the outskirts of Paris, but in their brilliant constellation on Wednesday evening there was a lot to be said for the fashion establishment playing the New Guard at their own game. And as Sir Paul said, "I love it. I just love my job. I love meeting people. Tonight I'm here, tomorrow is a new day. I was out on a date with someone called Pauline last night," he smirked, referring to his wife Lady Pauline Denyer. Did she come to Florence, too? "No, no, she's doing her pilates!"
Text Anders Christian Madsen