Women's wear: After years of having his men's shops plundered by women, Paul Smith has given them a line of their own

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IT WAS bound to happen sooner or later - too many women had been buying Paul Smith's men's clothes for too long. It's nearly 20 years since his first London outlet opened. And from the very beginning, the simplicity of his cut, the subtlety - the very plainness - of his colours, and the looseness of his fit, made his clothes a relief for women who wanted stylish basic pieces you couldn't find among the morass of 'fashionable' collections in shops for their own gender.

First of all it was his lightweight cotton macs - cut so much more generously than women's ones. Then his sportswear bred all sorts of 'unisex' favourites long before the Gap sailed in with their cut-price versions: high-quality T-shirts, three- button sports shirts; those John Smedley superfine polo necks that looked so sexy on girls. And nobody was better than Paul Smith at buying in funny little accessories, a point-of-sale gimmick lots of other retailers subsequently tried to copy. (I remember a consignment of old square metal watches he bought at some jewellers' closing down sale years before old Rolexes soared through the price ceiling. These cost about pounds 40, didn't last long, but looked great.)

And then, later, when he'd expanded through London and Paris and Tokyo and Milan, there were still his white shirts and golfing cardigans, the perfect white singlets and 57 varieties of boxer shorts girls could wear on the beach. Paul Smith always sold great luggage, right back from the American plumber's bags with the canvas tops and metal bases he'd introduced in the late Seventies. And even if you weren't buying for yourself, Paul Smith always had great presents for men. Women could be seen be hunting through the old mahogany showcases for a set of crazy cufflinks or a purposefully tasteless tie or a pair of ex-GI's sunglasses in their original faded cardboard packets.

So females have long owed a debt to Paul Smith. It was even getting to the point where they were ready to buy entire suits off the peg . . .

And then he designed a women's line, with the same attention to detail as his men's clothes - a slimmed-down cut, but still easy enough to wear. He added long linen shirts and tunics, cigarette-pants and waistcoats, some more experimental items in slub silk and shredded linen, and made them all in the usual beautiful muted colours with the odd over-excited pattern on a shirt or blouse.

A few of his old fans thought he might spoil everything by cutting things too tightly, or producing - you know, 'normal' women's clothes. But by the looks of it, we needn't have worried.

(Photographs omitted)