Marine swapped guns for glamour: Paul Firth bought himself out of the forces to pursue his dream to become a fashion designer, writes Christopher Bellamy
Monday 13 June 1994
'In any small business it's a constant battle,' said Frith. 'It's a nightmare, an absolute nightmare, but it's getting easier. It's a combination of luck and timing and stuff like that. It's a lot of hard work.'
The telephone rang. 'It's Harrods asking when my stuff is being delivered,' he said. Behind him, a framed souvenir cover from Elle showing one of his designs. 'British fashion is exciting, inspirational and innovative. It bucks the trend. . .' it read. Frith also bucked the trend.
He bought himself out of the Marines 10 years ago, after serving six years in which he narrowly missed a place cross-country skiing and shooting in the British Olympic biathlon team. All the way through that decade, he came up against new obstacles more terrifying than anything the Marines could throw at him.
'I just went for a dream, really. I just went back to art school.'
That was not easy. Aged 24, he returned to a further education college near his home in Lincolnshire to complete A-levels, and two years later was one of 600 applicants for 25 places to do a BA in fashion and textiles at St Martin's School of Art, London - a prestigious alma mater for fashion designers. The interview with the head , he said, 'was terrifying. Just as I imagined. She was all in black. Incredibly together'.
Frith had joined the Marines at 17, and completed his nine months training, including the commando course, before joining 45 Commando at Arbroath. Although he had six O-levels, he decided against trying for officer entry. 'In the Marines you either have rank or the flexibility to do what you want,' he said. He stayed a humble Marine.
The role of 45 Commando was to reinforce northern Norway in the event of a Soviet invasion - and they practised often. Here the Marines' cross-country skiing coach spotted his talent, and he began travelling with the Marines' biathlon team to Italy, Denmark, Finland and Sweden.
Isolated from the main body of the Marines, the conviction that he wanted to 'do something artistic' grew. 'I wouldn't say I was a loner in the Marines, but even putting the sport - the total athletic commitment - aside, I wouldn't go out on the razz every night. Other guys would have copies of Penthouse in their lockers. I would have Vogue. I had to hide them - it was just too complicated.'
When he missed getting into the team for the 1984 Olympics, he decided it was time to leave. He made the break on his own, with no help from the forces, apart from two more O-levels which he obtained in the Marines.
'I never told anyone that I was going to study fashion. I knew what the reaction would be. I believe there is huge resettlement now, but that didn't exist when I was there.'
But, he said, if he had let on, the resettlement authorities would probably have tried to dissuade him. 'When I left, in a million years they'd never have pointed me at an art school, never,' he said.
'A lot of people think if you've been in the forces, if you've been a driver in the Marines, they expect you to drive buses round London. It takes a lot of nerve to break out of that, to do something you really want to do. I came out when I was 24 which is a decent age to start another career. With guys coming out after twelve or 14 years it can be difficult.'
Graduation from St Martin's did not bring instant acclaim. He worked in bars and resaurants in the fashion centres of Paris, Milan and New York for another couple of years to make contacts and to get money to set up his own business. In October 1992 he showed a very small collection, bought by Lucienne Philips. 'She introduced me to the design director of Vogue - they got me a free stand at London fashion week.'
He now works with Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and Bergdorf Goodman in New York. His designs are classic, simple and well cut, made from quality materials, and they sell.
There is no green beret hanging in his light, airy flat in Hammersmith, west London, adorned with photographs of beautiful models, and piles of Elle, Tatler, Marie Claire and Vogue.
In one corner is a pair of skis. 'I don't think I'd ever put those skis on again', the former biathlon champion said. 'I haven't skied since I left the Marines. I don't jog or anything like that. I need that competitive edge.'
Maybe he had found his competitive edge in the fashion world? 'Absolutely. A hundred percent'.
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