The secret life of suits

As his stores return to China, maverick designer Paul Smith talks to Vision editor Danielle Green about fan gifts, sportswear, and the irreverent British twist that underpins all his work

British fashion designer Sir Paul Smith’s Covent Garden studio resembles the world’s wackiest flea market. Shelves, desks and chairs groan under the weight of ephemera running the gamut from the kitsch to the erudite. A shiny plastic beetle perches atop a smart gift box. A pair of gaily coloured origami birds share shelf space with a set of novelty latex hands. And a Mr Potato Head lolls against a weighty coffee-table book charting some art movement or other.

Most of these items are donated by members of the public, explains Smith, adding that it makes opening the office post a rare pleasure. Today’s haul, he reveals, includes a seashell sent in by a lady in Germany. “She was on the beach, saw something pretty and thought she’d pop it in the post,” says Smith. “I’ve never met her.”

It’s easy to see how the designer’s personal warmth and lack of guile make the public feel such a personal connection. Courteous and avuncular, Smith exudes generosity of spirit. But underpinning it all is a determination that has taken him from his modest beginnings – a tiny shop in his hometown of Nottingham, in the English Midlands, in 1970 – to a global concern, with the Paul Smith label boasting 14 different collections, and the man himself one of the UK’s most successful fashion designers.

We pride ourselves on all our shops being different. It’s a refreshing approach at a time when so many malls and streets are full of the same look

Paul Smith

A life in fashion wasn’t always on the cards for the designer, though. It’s hard to ignore the piles of cycling regalia strewn among the rest of the studio clutter, including helmets and shirts emblazoned with team insignia – many of them donated by stars such as Sir Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. A quick scan of the room also reveals at least half a dozen gleaming racing bikes propped against the walls.

As a child, Smith was a gifted cyclist. He started bike racing when he was 12 years old. Tall, rangy and armed with the competitive spirit that was to serve him so well in business, he raced until he was almost 18. But a serious accident, which resulted in him spending six months in hospital, put an end to his sporting ambitions.

It was during his period of convalescence that he made a new circle of friends with links to the local art college, who introduced him to the world of fashion. At his job at a Nottingham warehouse, where he was an errand boy, he channelled his newfound interest into making showroom displays – so successfully that he ended up as menswear buyer. Evening classes in tailoring followed, leading in turn to a job on Savile Row.

Cycling’s loss may have been fashion’s gain, but Smith has maintained his connections with the sport. Earlier this year, he was asked to design the shirts for the British team competing in the Dubai Tour, a role that afforded him particular pleasure when his friend Mark Cavendish triumphed at the tournament. 

“It felt really good to see a British cyclist in a British-designed jersey win,” says Smith, while Cavendish returned the compliment, dedicating his win to “my friend Paul Smith” and promising to “bring him back one of his jerseys”.

Playfulness is at the heart of Smith’s craft, an attribute he says he inherited from his father. Complementing this is the influence of his wife and business associate Pauline Denyer, who – unlike Smith – has formal training. A fashion graduate of London’s Royal College of Art, Denyer has been variously described as Smith’s “muse” and, in his own words, his “key to the world of fashion”.

“My dad was very funny and charismatic,” he says. “And Pauline has always been very clear about beautiful quality and having an understanding of cut and shape. The combination of the input from Dad and from Pauline is pure Paul Smith.”

To demonstrate his point, the designer unbuttons the stylish but sober navy-blue suit he is wearing to reveal an instantly recognisable flash of Paul Smith signature stripe. “It’s the secret inside the suit,” says a clearly delighted Smith. “I’ve got a beautiful quality cashmere blue suit on, but it’s got the fun on the inside. It’s Pauline and my dad in one garment.”

A lot of Chinese art gallery owners are also Paul Smith customers. They are very worldly, interested in clothes that are not obviously logoed

Paul Smith

Classic but quirky has proved to be a winning combination for overseas markets, with Smith today operating in more than 70 countries. His recent trip to Beijing comes as the company is re-establishing its Chinese presence. An early player in the market, the label pulled out in 2007, claiming that sales were suffering due to a local preference for more ostentatious brands. Now, though, Smith says the landscape has changed thanks to a combination of growing internationalisation and a burgeoning art and design scene.

“The Chinese are much better travelled than they were 10 or 20 years ago,” he says. “Many of the younger generation have studied in England at boarding school or at university and are aware of Paul Smith because they’d come to London and discover our shops. A lot of Chinese art gallery owners are also Paul Smith customers. They are a very worldly group and are more interested in clothes that are not obviously logoed.”

Each shop embodies both a thoughtful tailoring to the local aesthetic and the Paul Smith sense of “fun” – his small act of rebellion against the growing homogeneity of the global retail experience. “We pride ourselves on all our shops being different,” says Smith. “It’s a refreshing approach at a time when so many malls and streets are full of the same look.”

The level of detail is overwhelming but Smith thrives on this perpetual rollercoaster. “I enjoy the challenge of every day,” he says. “We do a lot – four lines for men, three lines for women, and design all our own shops in 73 countries – so it’s not exactly a quiet life. There’s always a new trick, a new lovely thing around the corner.”

And on that note, the man in the blue suit with the secret inside makes his excuses and disappears.