paul smith is facing the biggest reinvention of his career
50 years after founding his fashion house, Paul Smith’s menswear has undergone the biggest makeover of any brand in recent fashion history.
James wears all clothing Paul Smith. Shoes Model's Own.
For an industry obsessed with the new, the biggest paradox in fashion is our fear of change. Over the past four seasons, Paul Smith's menswear has undergone the biggest makeover of any brand in recent fashion history. His darkly romantic collections of sweeping floor-length coats, epic sheepskin furs, and louche tailoring have injected the 45-year-old power brand with an opulence and poetry light-years beyond the jazzy stripes and polite floral prints that once defined it. But it's a directional assertion that was initially granted little acknowledgement from the industry, even if it was selling like mad. Days after his spring/summer 16 show in Paris, Sir Paul is lounging in a corner at The Delaunay and he's got a lot on his mind. "All the time, wherever I go in the world, people say, 'I got married in one of your suits.' The second thing they say is, 'You're famous for those stripes, aren't you?' That is a preconceived idea. I've done handmade shoes, dresses, kitsch things, beautiful things," he pauses; regroups. "Because there's one element of the collection that is quite well-known in the public, all they talk about is that: the equivalent of the multi-stripe. That's why I took a step back from it."
He's referring to his daredevil decision, four years ago, to start to withdraw all products bearing his two best-selling trademarks, the multi-stripe and the photo print, which he's credited with inventing in the 80s. "Overnight, I took millions of pounds from the business, just like that. Everyone thought I'd gone a bit mad, but I could tell it was going the wrong way. We still do lots of lovely stripes, just not that stripe in primary colors, which was, in my opinion, becoming too popular. We were being defined by it." It was the first chapter in his ongoing mastermind elevation of the Paul Smith brand, which - despite constant sales and expansion - had lost the directional oomph of its 70s and 80s adolescence. To Sir Paul - madly insatiable in the knowledge and newness department - it was a realization that took him aback and had to be rectified, starting with what he calls the tip of the iceberg: his shows. "I decided to push it a lot, because I needed to be having the conversation I'm having with you now, and I wasn't having that conversation."
With a carefully scouted design team and renowned stylists in place, he set sails for this new interpretation of the classic Paul Smith codes. His immaculately tailored suits got bolder in cut, more daring in fabrication, and that bohemian rock 'n' roll spirit his friends - David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Patti Smith - first fell in love with decades ago intensified in graphic motifs and a whole lot of leather. The change came through loud and clear, yet at first, many of fashion's show-goers seemed oblivious. For this industry so hell-bent on innovation, Sir Paul was still good ole' Sir Paul—even if his work had done a 180. The frustration, of course, was palpable, certainly for those of us who loved the new collections from day one, but especially for a designer who's more than aware of what buttons to push to increase his relevance. "Sometimes I get so sad when a lot of the new kids on the block - people in the media especially - just prejudge you," he says. "I think the most difficult thing is prejudging anybody or anything, and that's done very flippantly these days."
You could put it down to ageism - Sir Paul turns 70 next year - but interestingly, he doesn't. "I don't think it's happened to me. You should really ask the people around me, but I'm so lively all the time and so interested in anything. I've got mates that are the same age as me and they're old people. They're mentally sluggish because they don't have a mind that goes left and right. And I do, because I always have." Similarly, he says, his Holland Park residence and mind-blowing private fortune - a reported £290 million (roughly $450 million) - have never been an issue. "If you don't watch it, you're in your ivory tower with your chauffeur-driven car and you're surrounding yourself with subservients, and before you know it you've missed the person who pays the rent. I still go to the shop - I work in the shop - almost every week, and I still go to all the fabric fairs." He likes a bargain, drives a Mini, reads every newspaper under the sun on a daily basis (except, perhaps, The Sun), and every morning he replies to the letters he receives from admirers around the world.
As the reality of the new Paul Smith begins to register with the menswear crowd, Sir Paul is now zoning in on what he calls his "biggest challenge": breathing the kind of life into his womenswear that will make waves in the industry on par with the game-changing houses. Because, as things go in the world of Paul Smith, why not? He's the first to admit he's never been particularly comfortable in the womenswear field, even if he's done it since 93. "The first women's collection was just boy's clothes for women. Then the pressure was on: 'We need a dress, we need a skirt.' For quite a few years I felt out of my depth, and then I realized that the press, especially, just didn't believe I could do clothes for women, probably because I don't have a strong feminine side. It just didn't fit with me. But now I've got this really great team," he says, adding that he's actually never designed a women's collection that didn't sell well.
Based on his wife, the chic intellectual Lady Pauline Denyer - by his side since 69 - the new direction will focus on the couture training she received at the Royal College of Art in her youth. "As 21-year-olds, Pauline and I went to couture shows and saw Saint Laurent, Chanel and Balenciaga in salons with twelve people in the audience. So we've got a lot of history of real clothes," he explains, hinting perhaps at a more artisanal Paul Smith to come. With his fiftieth anniversary coming up in 2020, he'd be forgiven for doing some well-deserved laurel-resting, but in the game of relevance, Sir Paul's tenacity is testament to the fact that whether young or old, poor or rich, courage is the driving force of any fashion designer. Next, of course, to staying true to your brand. "I'm about to turn the volume up in a way that's very me," he says. "Very me."
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Jason Evans
Styling Max Clark
Fashion assistance Bojana Kozarevic, Marta Tagliabue
Models James McDonald, James Gale