PAUL SMITH: THE THEORY OF CREATIVITY. Paul Smith, the English designer and founder of his eponymous brand, tells DA MAN the importance of having creative freedom while sharing his view on today’s fashion
Step into any Paul Smith store, and prepare yourself to be fully immersed in a universe fuelled by creativity. The clothes and accessories are arresting; colors and motifs go hand in hand without the slightest hint of exaggeration. From the preppy to the dapper to the adventurously stylish gent, there will always be something for every individual who wants to add a touch of Paul Smith’s sensibilities to his wardrobe. Aside from the clothing selections, various bits and pieces in the interior strikingly distinguish the stores from the usual high-end brick-and-mortar outlets. They showcase the founder’s wide array of collectibles so that the ambience feels rather personal and down-to-earth. After all, designer Paul Smith himself is an avid collector of things, and therefore his personality shines through the stores.
An energetic and humble visionary, Smith has a success story that has become an archetypal fairy tale for those who want to break into the industry. In 1970, a turn of fate brought young Smith, who was on his way to becoming a professional cyclist, to work in a local clothing store. There he met his wife, with whom he opened a retail shop together and who has encouraged him to design his own collection. Fast-forward to more than thirty years later, the designer has been dressing “7-year-olds to 77-year-olds” with lines ranging from menswear, womenswear and even kids wear.
Clashes of Prints showcase Smith’s quirkiness
But even with a multimillion-dollar business to his name, the Englishman remarkably manages to stay grounded while still holding a never-ending fascination with beautiful and quirky things. He rarely credits himself for his success and frequently remarks that his path in fashion is organic, and everything simply falls into the right place. Even more remarkable is the fact that his business operates independently, in contrast to most industry players whose majority shares are owned by huge corporations. That independence allows him to be more liberated in his sartorial approach; as seen, among other things, in the brand’s spring/summer ’15 menswear collection. As eclectic as ever, it features vibrant prints, fringe, geometric motifs and a bevy of textures with tropical prints and plants as the main inspirations. More than just designing, Smith also continually collaborates with everyone from musicians to interior designers while writing a book and penning his thoughts on the brand’s official blog. And let’s not forget that the man is turning 69 this year.
The new slouchy suit
DA MAN: Hi Sir Paul, we’re thrilled to see your spring/summer ’15 collection on the runway. It’s refreshing to see clashes of prints while some designers tend to simplify their designs nowadays. Do you always have such freedom in designing?
Paul Smith: From very early on I had worked as a retailer—selling from my own 3-by-3 shop—so I’ve always understood the importance of balancing business and design. Throughout the years, Paul Smith [the brand] has experienced a fairly unique development as it’s privately owned yet it has gone international, being available in over 73 countries. This means I have a lot of freedom creatively; I spend a lot of time on the business side of things, but continuing my design work has been key to maintaining a clear brand.
Chevron meets fringe
DA: The collection brings back a lot of loose separates with tropical prints to the menswear essential list. How did your ideas for this seasonal installment come about?
PS: The collection was inspired by the Venice Biennale and the way the artists played with dress codes at all the opening parties. The Biennale took place in a beautiful old garden in the city, and that’s where the idea for the plants in the set and lots of the tropical prints on the clothes came from.
DA: Do you have any advice for men who’d like to wear your spring/summer ’15 statement pieces?
PS: Whatever you’re wearing, the definition of style is not being conscious of it. A true indicator of good style is knowing your lifestyle and your body type, and then dressing up accordingly.
Unexpected color mixes are a regular on Paul smith’s runways
DA: Let’s talk about your designing process. You once mentioned that you have a very free approach. How would you define that “free approach”?
PS: It’s difficult to define but I always try to be optimistic and positive, both personally and in the designs I create.
DA: Have you ever experienced designer’s block?
PS: My problem is containing the ideas and energy! People may have heard me say that you can find inspiration in everything, and if you can’t at first, then try looking again. What that means is the importance of both “looking” and “seeing.” My whole way of thinking is about “looking” and “seeing.” [It’s important to] think laterally about things rather than just going down the obvious route.
The designer backstage
DA: When do you feel most inspired?
PS: I never have favorites but being in London is very inspiring. It’s such a vibrant city with so many museums, galleries and events going on constantly. With the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate Modern, we have three of the most popular museums in the whole world. There’s just an endless flow of inspiration.
DA: That endless flow of inspiration seems to contribute much to your successful effort in keeping the brand fresh and relevant. Do you have any other secrets to success?
PS: Playing to people’s strengths and weaknesses, plus having a great team around you is vital. Any team sport, of which road cycling is one, is about team work and that’s what I’ve learnt.
Colored sunglasses are part of this season’s must-haves
DA: Music is a huge part of your creative pursuit, from collaborating with a handful of musicians to having “Paul Smith Live” in the stores. Which musicians or albums shape your creative vision these days?
PS: When it comes to music, it totally depends on my mood, and there’s such a lot of music I adore. More recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz but I suppose my youth was very much about The Rolling Stones and the West Coast sound coming out of America … and then of course Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I listen to a lot of contemporary stuff, too—Beck, Jake Bugg and lots of that sort of thing.
DA: Looking back, your initial start in fashion was quite unexpected. What made you fall in love with fashion design then?
PS: Nothing was ever really planned. I worked as a shop assistant and then opened my own small shop but only two days a week at first. It was a slow progression, but I’m always self-financed and I’m very proud that we’re still an independent company now. To be honest, I just wanted to earn a living in a world of creativity.
“Style is very hard to define in today’s world because you don’t find elegance in dressing in the way you used to”
DA: Having been in the industry for several decades, how has the fashion industry changed today in comparison to your early days?
PS: Style is very hard to define in today’s world because you don’t find elegance in dressing in the way you used to. It’s more about people wearing clothes in a stylish way than in an elegant way. Meanwhile, I like to create clothes for people to wear, use, and love in whatever way they would like to.