Designer Paul Smith on creations with an unexpected element

The British designer reveals the importance of charm buttons, the staples of a good wardrobe and why he is a firm supporter of the suit

Published: Feb 27, 2018

g_103837_paul_smith_280x210.jpgPaul Smith has been in the business since 1970
Image: Sabine Villiard

Q. You started relaxing the suit way back in the 1980s. How has the suit evolved since then?

When I first started designing clothes, I knew it was important that I added something different, something that made them unique—that was why I was the first person to put a printed lining on the inside of a classic tailored jacket or to put a colourful buttonhole on a shirt. This then evolved into me playing with the rules of tailoring, I’d design a traditional chalk-stripe suit, but instead of the stripe being in white, I’d make it in neon pink. That’s very much in the roots of Paul Smith. We’re known for making classical items, but with an element of the unexpected. All aspects of fashion are about today and tomorrow. Everything is always changing and the suit is no different. Right now, there is a lot of talk of ‘ath-leisure’ and people wearing trainers to office, but for my Autumn/Winter ’18 collection that I just showed in Paris, I chose to not show a single trainer on the catwalk and really explored my love for tailoring in every look. The second you stand still, you’re losing relevance.

Q. What do you think of the casualisation of the suit?
I always find this a tricky question to answer as I wear a suit every day and have done so for most of my career. I’m aware that traditional dress codes have been broken down in lots of senses and in some instances, I do find that disappointing. Take going to the opera as an example, it feels like much less of an occasion if the person next to you is in a T-shirt and pair of shorts. We might be in a particularly casual phase at the moment but that could all change soon. But for me, I’ll always be a firm supporter of the suit.

Q. How has the business changed since you started out? What’s new, what’s happening at the house of Paul Smith?

The industry has never been more competitive than it is at the moment. It’s always been a fast-paced business, but it feels more so like that than ever before. It was very different starting a creative business in the ’60s compared to now. There were a lot fewer people fishing from the pond that is the fashion industry. Now it’s incredibly competitive. The advice I’d give is to make sure you have a clear point of view; after all nobody needs another fashion designer, so you have to choose something, stick to it and do your best to stand out.

Q. Could you tell us a bit about your latest collection and the inspirations/concept behind it?
For my Autumn/Winter ’18 collection, I’ve explored tailoring in all its senses for both men and women. The colours are more muted and jewel-toned than my very vibrant Spring/Summer ’18 collection. The main print for the season is called the ‘dreamer print’ and is a reference to us all needing a little time to dream right now; time to step back from all of the hullaballoo and madness that’s going on in the world to breathe and to dream.

Q. What is the one thing that is common across all your collections? What is it that sets a Paul Smith suit apart?
I don’t design clothes for which you need an instruction manual to know how to put them on. It’s important for me to make beautiful clothes that can be worn and loved. The same is true of my suits; they’re not something to stand on ceremony in. They move with your body and hopefully feel comfortable and confident. Take one suit from my collection for example, my Suit To Travel In. Unlike many other ‘travel suits’, this one is made of 100 percent wool and has great breathable qualities, which means it’s fantastic for people who are always on the go. It also has what’s called ‘natural bounceback’ which means when you’re sitting on planes and trains as often as I am, it doesn’t crease.

Q. Your clothes are known for a sense of playfulness and quirkiness. What does it mean to you to add that element…?
I’m a very down-to-earth person. I don’t take myself too seriously and I’ve never been one of those designers who vanishes into an ivory tower and loses sight of the people who buy their clothes. It’s important to me that the clothes I design reflect a sense of humour or playfulness; that’s what many of the little hidden details represent like a charm button on a shirt or a doodle on the sole of a shoe.

Q. What has been your most memorable/favourite collection/collaboration?
It is impossible to choose an outright favourite as there have been so many but I was reminded of a particular one recently. It was a show in the ’80s I had in an art gallery owned by Andrée Putman in Paris; it was one of the first minimal spaces in the city. Previously, my collections had been very classically British; tweed, country colours and so on. It was becoming quite predictable. So in this show I did a collection which was silk and wool fabric in bright colours of Yves Klein blue, yellow ochre, raspberry pink, apple green, the cast of models was diverse which was revolutionary at the time, the music was all dub, which was also totally unexpected and the fits were very different; shorter jackets, wider shoulders. The audience was silenced. I remember Gene Pressman, the grandson of Barney of Barney’s New York saying, “I think you’ve really got it wrong this time, Paul,” but thankfully he was wrong and it was very popular both in the press and in the shops.

Q. What, according to you, are the staples of a decent wardrobe?
Style is all about a state of mind and feeling confident in what you’re wearing, rather than a set list of things that everyone should own. But if you were to push me, I’d say a good navy blue suit (you can’t go wrong with my Suit To Travel In), a great fitting white cotton shirt and some beautifully made leather shoes that just get better and better with age.

g_103839_suit_280x210.jpgPaul Smith is known for enlivening classic cuts with a splash of colour

Q. What is your one piece of advice for men and women for formal wear/suits?
Dress to suit your age and body shape.

Q. Where do you get your inspirations? Could you tell us a bit about your process?
I always say “you can find inspiration in everything and if you can’t, look again”. What I mean by this is that inspiration really is all around you, from the painted colours of the huts you pass on a walk down to the beach to the clashing prints you see when you’re visiting an exhibition at your local art museum. Anyone who follows my Instagram [handle] will know that I find inspiration in the most unexpected places.

Q. What is your take on India? How do you view India as a market and where does it fit into your future plans?
India is such an amazing place. I’ve had some of the most inspiring trips of my life visiting different parts of the country. I once made a whistle-stop visit to a market in Mumbai and before I knew it, I’d bought five shops worth of furniture! Needless to say, I couldn’t fit everything in my luggage and figuring out how to ship it back to London wasn’t easy. I’m very keen to come back soon, I’m trying to make a visit to Delhi happen soon.

(This story appears in the 16 March, 2018 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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