Paul Smith is considered a charismatic designer who produces more than fashion. A new monograph published just in time for his brand’s 50th anniversary captures the spirit and coolness of his creations, based on 50 objects that accompanied and inspired Sir Paul over the years.
By Thomas Wagner.
Here we are going to do something unusual and start from the back. “Between the ages of 12 and 17”, Paul Smith writes in text number 50 of the monograph just published for the 50th anniversary of his fashion brand, “I dreamed of becoming a pro cyclist. I would never have been successful; I was not brave enough or not good enough. But one day I was out training – with my head lowered and probably wearing my Buddy Holly sunglasses, which had very thick sides that could have created a blind spot – and rear-ended a stopped car, cycling at full speed. I collided with the boot and landed on the bonnet. When I tried to get up, a bone – my femur – popped out of my left thigh. It was very, very frightening. Not only had I broken my femur, but also my kneecap, a few ribs, my nose, my collarbone and a finger. I was taken to hospital where I was treated for three months.”
Racing as a pro cyclist suddenly became out of the question. Paul found new friends at hospital, and after being discharged he met them at a pub also frequented by many of the local art school’s students, who studied fashion, graphic design and fine art. “They were different to all the people I had ever met before. I was fascinated when they talked about people with names like Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky. They opened up a new world for me. One of them was also a girl by the name of Janet Campbell, whose father had opened a small clothing shop for her, and she asked me if I would help her out.” Paul helped her – and acquainted himself with the fashion business, “I learned a great deal during these five or six years. I cannot imagine how it would have come about without that accident on my bicycle.”
Paul Smith, the son of a tailor, was born in 1946 in Nottingham, which is where he opened his first own fashion boutique and trademarked his brand in 1970. Pauline Denyer, his girlfriend at the time, had studied fashion design and built up connections for him. In 1976, he showcased his first men’s collection in Paris and opened a store in London shortly after. Smith soon became known internationally. Further stores were added and in 1993 he also released a women’s line.
A portrait of 50 objects
The monograph, edited by Tony Chambers, the founder and creative director of design and lifestyle consultancy TC & Friends and co-chair of Brainstorm Design, captures the ease and spirit of the legendary British fashion creator in an extraordinary manner. Extraordinary because Sir Paul – who was knighted in 2000 for his services to the British fashion industry – wrote the texts for the book himself and selected 50 objects to complement them: all things that say something about him, his view of the world, about people and objects that have inspired him and about the way in which he designs clothes and much else. He recounts all of this with typical British understatement, an eminent tone that is never pompous and always masterful about his subject.
Sir Paul is an entertaining chronicler who reveals surprising perspectives and weaves stories ranging from his Kodak Retinette camera and his love of racing bicycles to the velvet suits of the late 1960s, the development of his quintessential colourful stripes and his latest collections and collaborations. “Regular brainstorming sessions at his Covent Garden headquarters at 8.30 a.m. (which for Paul was late morning)”, Chambers writes, “brought countless stories to the light of day and released a wealth of ideas. It was clear to both of us from the start that this book should neither be a retrospective catalogue with his greatest successes nor just be about fashion.”
It all comes down to the weave
Smith, for example, describes a linen tester, a small brass object with a magnifying glass, “You looked through it to see how many warp and weft threads there were in a material, so you could see how light or compact the material’s weave was. In the years from 1970 to 1976, the small store I had opened in Nottingham was only open two days a week. I spent the rest of my time doing things to earn my living. One of them was designing fabrics for Leigh Mills in Yorkshire. Something I had to do as part of that was to look closely at the fabric’s composition to see how tightly it had been weaved and how strongly the yarn itself had been plied. I did not really use the linen tester very often, but I always had it in my bag.”
He can look with precision
Smith can look with precision, and Apple’s experienced designer Jonathan Ive also speaks about this in his foreword, “The thing about Paul Smith – and it is remarkable – is that he truly sees. He does not decide to see within predictable categories; he ignores the compulsion exerted by the traditional dogmas of art and design. He does not see only what interests him. His vision extends further and deeper – and he envelops the world with breathtaking rigour, concentration and reflection; he finds joy, delight and a promise in that which he sees.” Chambers also attests to Smith’s exceptional capabilities in another field when he observes that Smith has “for years instinctively done what business gurus today describe as ‘design thinking’ and ‘empathy for the customer’; in other words, he thought differently and creatively (like a designer) about his company”.
It’s a very old-school approach: taking basic stuff and being able to do something with it.Paul Smith
Rams and the shoe design
And so Smith talks about French racing cyclist Jacques Anquetil and how he was interested in the camaraderie, effort and concentration of bicycle racing. Even though professional cycling involved “working and learning with other people, using their strengths and adapting to their weaknesses”, he mentions how it was also about “style and appearance” for him. Or he details how he happened upon the Bauhaus movement and was fascinated how students at Bauhaus made things differently – “for example furniture made of chrome pipe, influenced by a bicycle handlebar”. At another point the reader learns that it was not by coincidence when Smith demonstrated his reverence with a 2018 capsule collection of Anni Albers, the Bauhaus weaving master. With all of these wonderful stories, it is unsurprising that Paul Smith also had a predilection for the design of Dieter Rams and Braun, which is attested to by facts such as his store being the only one in the UK where customers could buy the Braun pocket calculator at its release in 1987. Then there is also this little story: “One day”, Smith recounts, “I brought a radio with me to a design meeting that had been designed by Rams for Braun; the cleanest and most beautiful design, light beige and grey, very simple. I said to the shoe design team, ‘That’s a pair of shoes!’ I was never sure if they really understood what I meant, but in the end we had some very nice shoes.”
Irony with pinstripes
These and many other stories, along with all the colourful stripes, apples, spaghetti and patterns that he conjures onto shirts and jackets, demonstrate one fact beautifully: Paul Smith is a master of detail who, with subtle irony, can masterfully enliven the pinstriped material of British businessmen’s attire and transform it into something vivid – who can still remain the master of understatement even with all the extravagance. With Paul Smith, the person and the brand remain inseparably linked, whether he is adding eye-catching yet subtle colour highlights on the corners, hinges and straps of elegant Globe-Trotter suitcases – as he is currently – or treating a Braun alarm clock to a colourfully striped second hand instead of a conventional yellow one – so that the time can pass more cheerfully.
Ed. by Tony Chambers
Foreword by Jonathan Ive
Phaidon, London 2020
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