Born in Beeston, England to a draper father, a life in the ‘rag-trade’ was the furthest thing from the teenage Paul Smith’s mind - he dreamt only of success as a professional racing cyclist. There’s little doubt that he would have raced at the highest level - he had already proved himself as a junior. A serious cycling accident at 17 put paid to these dreams, and he spent the next six months in hospital recovering. Time spent recuperating in the company of art students led Sir Paul towards the fashion business, although he candidly admits that it is clothes that are his love, and not fashion, writes Simon Balsom.
At 63 he runs his eponymous company, now with an annual turnover of around $500 million, in much the same way as when it began - hands on - and with just as much passion. When I spoke with Paul he was sitting in his office located above the workroom. As soon as we finished chatting he was off down the stairs, ready to work in his natural environment.
He speaks with a pronounced Nottingham lilt, and is a man clearly at ease with himself and his world around him. Whilst his clothes are worn by celebrities, Sir Paul eschews a celebrity lifestyle for himself.
His own sartorial style - which is reflected throughout every piece of the Paul Smith Collection - is one of comfort rather than extravagance. He wears his sixty-three years extremely well, and retains echoes of the body that Paul Smith the racing cyclist would have worked hard for.
He still retains his passion for the cycling world, and can count many of the current crop of riders as his friends, and a number of them are his customers. A few days before we spoke Mark Cavendish and also Victoria Pendleton had been in his store, and as Sir Paul recounted the conversation they had one can’t help but feel that it is still a source of frustration to him that his chances of racing at this level were dashed before he had a chance to prove himself.
He follows the races closely, and during last year’s Tour de France would speak on a daily basis to Bradley Wiggins, Mark, or to one of their team managers. He doesn’t travel to the races, pressures on his time don’t allow this, plus also; “The race coincides with the time of year I take a break to go on holiday with my family - if I didn’t go with them I think I’d get shot!” he laughs.
Back to business - where he is still completely immersed on a daily basis - he still designs, and is still involved in every stage of the creation of his clothes. He doesn’t find this remarkable, in fact what he finds more remarkable is that some designers who still attach their names to collections actually have little to do with what is turned out under their moniker.
“I feel very privileged to be able to do what I do”, he says, “I’m humbled by it”.
There’s a great energy in the company, one that is led and focussed by Sir Paul. One knows it has always been this way, even in their early days.
“At the beginning it was just my wife and myself; and then it was just me; and then it became just me and one other assistant. Now though I have around twenty assistants, so things have changed, but they are on the floor below where I’m sitting now and we all get on and they’re a really great team”, he continued.
He feels his commitment is crucial to the ongoing strength of the business. “I think you have to be 100% committed, or you might as well pack it in”, he told me. “You can’t be 90%. Sometimes you have to roll your sleeves up and get on with it”.
The clothing business today is massively competitive and must be approached in quite a different way to when he opened his first store, in Nottingham, in 1970. Nine years later his was the first clothing store to open on Covent Garden’s Floral Street.
Today though he sees the market as being far more dominated by the big fashion groups.
“Look at today, where you have the likes of Zara for example. They can put stores anywhere and this can make it extremely difficult for a young independent designer to make his presence felt”.
He doesn’t feel that Paul Smith suffers at all from the effects of such group - they are clearly in a different market altogether. The Paul Smith signature is ‘classic, with a twist’. And as mentioned earlier truly reflects Sir Paul’s style sense and attention to detail.
For Sir Paul; “the clothing business today is about more than just the clothes, it’s also about the character of the brand. In my case it’s about my passion for having shops which are unique and which are individual”.
Paul Smith stores are always unique, and always worth visiting if only for the eclectic style and designs implemented in their displays.
But it’s about more than just the clothes - it’s also about how to wear them.
A question that often arises is whether men dress better these days than in the past.
Sir Paul feels that dress code has certainly become more relaxed, and this is ultimately a good thing. “It’s easier now for men to look more fashionable, or more importantly more interesting”, he says, “and it’s easier for men to feel more at ease with the products”.
And not just clothing, but grooming too.
“I think guys these days are more at ease with themselves when it comes to considering how they look”, he concluded.
Sir Paul’s own style would be considered relaxed. On the day we spoke he was wearing a pair of jeans, one of his shirts, together with a tailored suit jacket. He’s quite comfortable with this mix-and-match approach to clothing.
“The way a man dresses today is very much down to his own personality, this is true today more than it ever has been in the past”, he says.
He explains further; “It’s got a lot to do with your lifestyle and also your job. If you’re a businessman and you feel required to wear a suit, shirt and tie then you can dress all in Zegna or all in Paul Smith and you know you’re going to look right. A suit presents a pretty anonymous look anyway”.
“Mixing jeans with tailoring means you can mix designer with non-designer, and this is absolutely acceptable”.
Dressing like this also allows for the introduction of a detail in colour or a pattern which would enable the wearer to express themself uniquely. Even without the addition of a wacky colour the wearer can still identify himself as being a man of individuality.
Sir Paul tends to dress well whatever the occasion. And dressing ‘well’ does not equate to dressing ‘up’. His weekend style reflects a similar mix of casual and tailored. Perhaps a pair of loafers, slim black jeans, and a bespoke tailored jacket. Even when wearing a suit he may decide to team this with a knitted - and coloured - waistcoat.
I discover we both have a passion for dressing in a similar style. I’m rarely seen without a tailored jacket, and Sir Paul picks up on this as perhaps his most important style tip.
“Not all of us are blessed with strong shoulders or a good body, so a tailored jacket - with its structured look - give a very flattering silhouette to a man’s figure. Invariably a man will look better in a jacket than without one”. So, there you have it. It’s advice that I too would endorse.
Sir Paul Smith is a man for whom more than a generation of well-dressed men and women should be grateful. Thank to his passion for ‘real’ clothes as opposed to purely ‘fashion’ we have seen a movement towards individual expressions of dress. He has taken this quintessentially English classic (with a twist) look around the world, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his services to the British fashion industry. His clothes have often been copied - but never equalled.
As Sir Paul cycles his bike (he continues to ride at weekends, but these days he’s a fair-weather rider) and contemplates his life he is sure to wonder from time to time how different things could have been. But regrets? There are none.
You can follow Sir Paul Smith’s blog by logging on to www.paulsmith.co.uk/personal/paul-smith-blog/
First Published in Men's Passion Issue #21 April 2010