A suitocrat of the old school

Interview: John Walsh meets Paul Smith
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The Independent Online
Poor Paul Smith. He cannot walk down the street in Tokyo these days without being mobbed by fashion fans. They treat him, he shyly admits, like a rock star. But when you have no fewer than 160 retail outlets across Japan (that's at least 150 more than you've got in Britain), it's hardly surprising to find the besuited groovers of modern Nippon wanting a piece of you. Thirty years ago, he couldn't walk down the streets of his native Nottingham without being mobbed in a different way. "I was 21 in the Hendrix era, but I was already past the hippie stage," he recalls. "By then the look was very grown-up. I had a hand-made, pale pink, single-breasted suit with red hand-made python boots. I got called some terrible names. Old men in the street would come up to me and shout, `LOOK AT YOU! YOU LOOK LIKE A WOMAN! YOU SHOULD BE PUT IN A DRESS! I FOUGHT THE WAR FOR PEOPLE LIKE YOU...' I was fairly dandyish at that point."

A master of understatement, Paul Smith smiles reminiscently. They were good times in the late Sixties, working with clothes, dreaming of independence, falling in love. "I met Pauline [Denyer, his life partner] that same year. She was a student at the Royal College of Art, studying fashion. She taught me masses about it." What was he wearing when they met? "Well, I don't know if I was wearing it the actual day, but I did use to go around in this bespoke mint-green double-breasted suit..."

Strangely, instead of turning round at the first sight of this minty apparition and running off screaming down the road, Ms Denyer stuck with Mr Smith through thick and thin. The thick years outnumbered the thin. Since the first seismic tremors in the designer menswear industry of the Eighties, Paul Smith has been at the front of the New Suitocracy, calling the shots and establishing himself unassailably as the nation's most successful (pounds 160m turnover worldwide, five warehouses in Nottingham, 300 staff in Britain and he sells to 40 countries) men's clothing impresario. All the square-jawed young men from City trading floors and Mayfair estate agencies, as they weighed up the merits of seams and gorges, buttons and side-vents of the German and Italian clothiers (Lagerfeld, Hugo Boss, Armani, Zegna), could feel an internal squeak of pride that Paul Smith could wipe the floor with the rest. His stuff was as classic as Gieves & Hawkes (the bespoke masters of No 1, Savile Row) but he did cool, subtly different things with linings, pockets, lapels and glazed finishes. His dark and sexy emporium in Covent Garden is famous for several things: having puzzling window displays, when they actually have any at all; selling non-fashion things like toothbrushes and literary magazines; accommodating several generations of superstar ("the other day we had Sir Norman Foster, Mick Jagger, Mick Hucknall and the boys from Supergrass in the shop all at the same time"); and wrapping everything in acres of tissue paper, even if you're only buying cufflinks. Mr Smith is very punctilious about service. "In so many shops now," he says sadly, "you're lucky if somebody says `Thank you' as you're leaving. There's no service, it's all self-service - bookshops, record shops, they're all going the same way. But it's still nice to go into a shop where someone makes you feel special."

Does he sound dismayingly old-fashioned? Perhaps. But it doesn't take a genius to see that Mr Smith is a mixture of the orthodox and the avant- garde, the formal and the outre, and that his success is directly related to his Janus-like ability to look both ways at once. "Classic with a twist" is how he described his tailoring aesthetic back in the Eighties. It's a phrase quite applicable to the man himself. Meeting us off the train to Nottingham, he is tall, dark-suitedly formal and stern-looking, with a whole zoo of feral features: the sharkish mouth, the hawkish gaze, the aquiline beak, the foxy expression. He appears to be all angles, and moves in a series of jerks like an impetuous marionette. But the sharp impression is offset by a riot of coloured accessories, the lilac shirt, the pistachio- green socks, the powder-blue wristwatch. Nobody ever mentions how camp Mr Smith can be. As I pored with him over some hilarious old photos from the days when 26-inch flares were de rigueur and one thought nothing of clamping a nancyish leather belt around one's dark polo-neck jumper, he said, "It's starting to sneak back, the dandy culture. It looks very fey now, but all the girls understood what was happening. They knew it was just the boys dressing up. They knew they weren't gay..."

Mr Smith looks with approval on the rise of rock bands such as Kula Shaker, with their retro-chic espousal of Indian mysticism. Before you know it, Afghan waistcoats will be back and he'll be selling pounds 600 super-worsted whistles with Nehru collars. At 51 this year, Smith should be past knowing or caring about the likes of Kula Shaker, but he keeps a shrewd eye on the fads of youth, knowing with uncanny prescience when something naff becomes acceptably kitsch (like the glutinous Mills & Boon artwork he used for his advertisements). He shouldn't, in theory, have much in common with Loaded magazine either, but they've also travelled up on the afternoon train to help launch his exhibition. Even now they're massing at the bar like arty guerrillas, eyeing the champagne...

The "True Brit" exhibition isn't about the range of Paul Smith's products, nor about his "art"; it's about the growth of a designer's soul and the reifying of his vision over the years. It starts with his school reports from the late Fifties ("He can always be relied on to give of his best and to get on with his work without compulsion") in which he shone at music but got a D in Physical Exercise. This is odd because in his teens Paul Smith was a champion cyclist. Pictures of the spindly youth, with his drop handlebars and determined expression, feature on the wall along with his collection of ancient Tour de France cycling vests. It was when he broke his leg and perforce abandoned all thoughts of a two-wheeled career, that he went into the rag trade, working in a clothing warehouse in Nottingham. He graduated to a clothes shop, where he developed his taste for pastels and minty hues, then set up his own place in 1970. It was a tiny box, 12- foot square, excruciatingly entitled "Vetements pour Homme". Pauline the girlfriend's 1970 diary records: "Friday Oct 9. Paul opened his room. I took Isobel to see it in the lunch hour. Brought Paul some Eau Sauvage for the room. He took pounds 52. Went for a meal this evening at a Berni. We are all very tired..." (The Eau Sauvage was, it seems, a practical gift, designed to counteract the aroma of Homer, Smith's Afghan hound). Elsewhere in the exhibition, you can find Smith's Filofax on display, as fat as a bolted cauliflower, and several dozen of the little orange notebooks in which he scribbles his ideas, mid-stroll, mid-meeting, mid-dinner and probably mid-sex too, so obsessively fecund is he. TV screens feature all his catwalk shows from 1987-1995. Glass cases house the original Fifties cameras, or pre-war Italian razor-blade- packet designs, which were worked into the fabric of his million-selling T-shirts. His ideas come from all sides, settling softly on him like a flock of birds. "You can find inspiration in anything," is an old dictum, "and if you can't, you're not looking properly."

The strangest thing about Smith's rise to success is that he had no formal design education - he, who has waxed evangelical on the subject for years, about how there are "about 15,000 colleges and universities around the country with design courses, pumping out students for a maximum of 700 places. So this exhibition is saying, `Look guys, you can do it'." He made a modest, I'm-not-here gesture, ridiculous in a man of 6ft 3ins in pistachio socks, and said: "The education department of the Design Museum - and I know this will sound swell-headed - thought they'd use Paul Smith as an example of a guy who's worked in Britain and made an international success. It's supposed to encourage the young because of the awful drain out of this country."

I said I thought British designers seemed to be doing rather well this year, with Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Stella McCartney taking over the key positions in French couture-land. McQueen had, famously, served a lengthy apprenticeship stitching and cutting and cockily leaving his signature on the internal seams of the Prince of Wales's trousers. How had Smith got on without that kind of training? "But my training was just doing it, as opposed to learning it in college. For 10 years I supported myself by doing alterations for money. I took suits apart and put them back together. I did night-school training for pattern cutting and sewing. Sometimes I'd take an order for 12 shirts and couldn't find anybody to make them for me, so I'd make them myself. In fact..." (he drew himself up several feet. His dark brown eyes surveyed me like an affronted heron) "... I have quite a good knowledge of the construction of clothes - balance, cut, bias, following the grain."

His real training, it seems, was at a pub called the Bell Inn in Nottingham, where he learned to drink and exchange creative ideas with students. Is that where the earnest bicycling youth turned into the peacock? "It was the importance of the time," he said. "Growing up in the Sixties was so exciting because there was so much that was new, and you just wanted to be a part of that newness." He was the youngest of three children by eight years. His brother worked for the GPO, his sister in an office. His father was a draper, a joker, an amateur photographer. His mum was a Mum. Everyone was a little baffled to find such a flamboyant cuckoo in the Smith nest. Before the Bell Inn, "I was just a cyclist, doing 350, 400 miles a week, in bed by nine o'clock, living on Glucadine energy tablets, living this very disciplined life, not drinking or smoking. Then I discovered the pub, and these students talking with passion about Warhol and the Bauhaus. It was so exciting."

These days, he's a little alarmed about The Young, and their lack of sense regarding the practicalities of running a fashion business. "I met a student the other day, who said, `I want to start my own business, because I can't get a job'. I asked her, What's the first thing you do when you're starting out? She said, `Get a press officer'." He shook his head. "She had no money, no workroom, no manufacturer, no focus about what she was trying to do, no strategy..." What did he think had gone wrong with the high-profile British fashion houses of the Eighties - like Body Map or Scott Crolla - that soared and crashed? "Some people have only one ingredient. In Scott Crolla's case, it was fantastic ideas, brilliant, wonderful images, but the other ingredients weren't there. The organisation, the forward planning, the whole business side...In order to survive, you can't rely on just Classic Fashion or Fashion Fashion. You have to get the balance right between the two. But in Britain, there are very few people who'll support small companies because we're so dominated by High Street chains, and factories will only turn out big quantities..."

And he went off to join the launch party for his exhibition. After Nottingham, it will decamp for Glasgow, then Korea, then Japan, where the personable Mr Smith will be mobbed by even more people in the street. When I left, he was getting into the party spirit, flooring Sauvignon with two extremes - with both his father Harold (94) and the effervescent young things from the style press, as they proceeded to get legless. A man for all seasons, styles, classes and ages is Mr Smith, a virtuoso at keeping his balance while all about him are losing theirs.

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