Flamboyant? Paul Smith?

That's the only word to describe his latest, Jaggeresque collection. By Andy Zneimer
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Paul Smith's new main-line collection for spring/summer 1998 is both daring and dynamic. "Aristocrat Delux" represents a clear departure from his previous style and reflects Mr Smith's determination to counter what he sees as an endemic slide into "blandness" in fashion.

As we sit and chat in his Covent Garden shop's loft-cum-office, it quickly becomes apparent that Paul Smith, this hugely successful and self-effacing bastion of British design, has a real bee in his bonnet: "Giorgio Armani proclaimed that fashion was dead last year. Joseph Ettedgui [the patron of the Joseph shops] was quoted in an article in Harpers & Queen saying how fashion companies are `building into global brands, like Coca-Cola, leaving little room for creativity'. Well, I'm saying, yes, they're right, but what are we going to do about it? It's our job to change it. Why can't large corporations make clothes that have individuality? It's not all about the bottom line, profit, shareholders. My new collection is virtually all hand-made and, for me, the style is eccentric and flamboyant. We've got to stay one step ahead or we're in danger of losing the plot. Not everyone will have liked my show in Paris last week but I don't care. It's the point I'm making that counts."

No matter where one is in the world, be it Milan, Paris, New York or London, the trend towards globalisation in fashion has never been greater. Paul Smith himself exports to 40 countries yet recognises the need to remain at the creative cutting edge.

Indeed, designers face both economic and creative pressure to satisfy the demands of diverse export markets and customer profiles. They are bound in part by factory production processes and economies of scale. It is those challenges that Paul Smith feels must be met and overcome if fashion is to remain dynamic and vibrant.

"The past few years have been very classical and minimalist," he continues enthusiastically. "I want to nudge my customers gently. There is an element of risk but I want to break the rules. The new collection uses many more `liquid' fabrics with what we call more drape.

"The trend has been for more shiny, stiff materials. Very sharp - Kray twins. This collection is much more fluid and flowing with a matt, dry effect.

"The suit silhouette is no longer Paul Weller, slim-fit; that retro-Gucci, flat-front trouser look. It's more baggy. The key is that every item is hand-stitched, making the garments look distinctly different. There are real silk linings, hand-stitched inside with coloured piping all around. Pink this side, blue that side. No one garment is the same as the next. We've created a bespoke feel to what are ready-to-wear garments. I've added a special line in the factory where every item is hand-worked. The shirts are totally hand-stitched with mother-of-pearl buttons. It just shows that there is room for individuality in fashion."

When I ask what are the cultural reference- points that inspired "Aristocrat Delux", Paul Smith refers to Mick Jagger's sumptuous attire in the seminal Sixties film, Performance. The collection has that eccentric, over-the- top, vaguely feminine edge to it with its flamboyant devoree velvet suits and dressing gowns, hand-embroidered, flower-patterned shirts and decadent bright velvet shoes. "Visually it's kind of where Peter O'Toole and Brian Epstein meet Jean Cocteau and Cecil Beaton," he explains. "It has that confident, rather snobbish, straight-backed feel to it. We used fresh- faced, genuine young aristocrats to model the collection and asked them to `posture' more than usual. There was more hair around than we have seen recently. I wanted to move away from that clean-cut look."

Today, Paul Smith has seven shops in London, one in New York, one in Paris, five in Hong Kong, one in Singapore, Bangkok, Taipei and Korea, the original shop in Nottingham, a new outlet in Manchester and 162 shops in Japan. Paul Smith Limited licenses a Japanese trading house, Itochu, to manufacture, wholesale and retail the Paul Smith collection. The shops are replicas of the shops in England, entire wooden interiors having been shipped out. The staff undergo the same training and Paul Smith himself remains immersed in the operation, designing the clothes, choosing the fabrics, approving the shop locations and overseeing all key developments.

He is the chairman and principal designer, an almost unique position in the industry, allowing him to retain a personal touch often missing in similar sized operations. The annual turnover of the wholesale, retail and licensed business is pounds 142m. This is a "global" company with a creative outlook.

"Some critics will have missed the point," he sighs. "In a way, the clothes are secondary. A lot of designers have been talking about change and the need for it. But they haven't worked out how to do it. This collection is more extreme than anything I've done for a long while. I want to nudge people to think about change and individuality. I've just become so bored. People should be a lot braver. At least I'm having a go."

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