What women want to wear: real men's brogues

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The Independent Online

It is exactly eight years since Paul Smith launched his womenswear collection on the London catwalk. He was prompted, he said at the time, by women who borrowed their boyfriends' jackets and shirts and even bought "Smithy clothing" as he put it, in small sizes for themselves.

Yesterday, at London Fashion Week, the autumn/winter 2006 Paul Smith Blue women's collection, as it is now known, took this idea a step further. "We've always had so many requests to do something for women that is similar to the menswear," Smith said backstage, "that we've started a new line which caters directly to that".

And so, alongside the main line, out came the new Men Only collection, comprising masculine trouser suits in sludgy shades of brown and schoolboy grey, crisp, white shirts worn with skinny-rib knitted vests and snake belts, traditional crombies and, of course, that mainstay of the androgynous wardrobe - men's brogues, all redesigned to suit the female form. Given mainstream fashion's continuing love affair with the starry and sirenesque in one corner and the dreamily romantic in the other, this made for refreshing viewing. These were real clothes, if you will, that will please modern women who would rather not dress up like the proverbial Christmas tree.

Of course, feminine flourishes came later. If the more masculine side of the show was indebted to Katharine Hepburn, the 1940s were also much in evidence in the form of sweet little velvet tea dresses scattered with polka dots, paisley-print chiffons and later, more directional long, louche, crumpled clothing that seemed to reference the Belgian designer, Ann Demeulemeester. Again, a smart move. Fashion's avant-garde has been taking a back seat for some time now and is ripe for revisiting. It's been quite a month for Smith. Last week, the man who famously said, "I'm OK at design, and I'm OK at business, and I'm really exceptional at neither" - a masterpiece of self-deprecation - sold a 40 per cent stake in his business to his long-time Japanese licensee, Itochu, for an undisclosed sum. If Smith is a household name in this country, in Japan he is a superstar. With a global wholesale turnover approaching £230m - 54 per cent comes from menswear, 28 per cent from accessories, 14 per cent from womenswear and 4 per cent from shoes - he is one of British fashion's great success stories.

In this country alone, he has 16 stores and has just opened a home interiors and accessories shop in Albemarle Street and a boutique near Borough Market, both in London. Smith, who has always guarded his independence jealously, insists that this latest turn of events was not a sell out/merger late Nineties-style but a natural progression that will allow his wife and business partner, Pauline, time to spend with their family.