Profile: Design's bespokesman: Menswear's Mr Nice is getting shirty, on behalf of British innovators. Ian Parker reports - Paul Smith

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WE HAD the customers down as victims, but it turns out to be the designers. Wednesday night's news bulletins included a slot on the plight of British design featuring Paul Smith, the best-known menswear designer in Britain, and perhaps the world. This is the nice middle-aged man from Nottingham who sells smart dark suits and novelty ties from his shops in Covent Garden and Tokyo and elsewhere. He is a great success. In Japan he is a god.

On Wednesday, it was reported that Paul Smith had 'launched a campaign' aimed at alerting government and industry to the importance of design in Britain's economic recovery. On News at Ten, Paul Smith was filmed wearing long hair and, no doubt, a Paul Smith suit. He said: 'Good design can affect the bottom line. It can make profits]'

And yet designers are neglected: the News at Ten report made much of this country's failure to capitalise on the work of a large bearded Englishman who invented the flexless kettle.

'Launching a campaign' was putting it a bit strongly - there is no committee, no headed paper - but it's clear that this activity is turning into something of a crusade for Paul Smith. In October 1992, he spurned his nomination as British Designer of the Year 'to highlight the problems of the British fashion industry. I see no advantage in continued self-congratulatory events when our own design industry is so insignificant in world terms . . .' He has since written peeved newspaper articles, met Michael Heseltine, and on Friday he returned to the theme in the television launch of the 1994 BBC Design Awards. British designers, we learnt, are taking their flexless kettles and clever trousers abroad, and this is wrong. Paul Smith, CBE, is no longer a mere purveyor of yuppie flash. He is

becoming an insistent and articulate lobbyist on behalf of British design - the bespokesman of his industry.

Doubtless, this shifts boxer shorts, and Paul Smith needs all the publicity he can get as he launches his first womenswear collection this year. But it also reminds us of something we sort of knew already. Paul Smith is not quite the same as the other designers with whom he shares the thin, perfumed air of international fashion. It is hard to picture Giorgio Armani - a strange man, by all accounts - leaving his shiny bubble of love and approval to attend conferences, form delegations, go on about students. Paul Smith, for all his great wealth and popularity, and for all his unhappy association with the excesses of Britain in the late 1980s, goes to some lengths to appear down-to-earth, in touch with the real world and all its social and commercial doings. This is his public relations image and, by a happy coincidence, it seems to bear some relation to the truth.

THE PAUL SMITH Sale Shop is just off New Bond Street. Your first thought, to be honest, is that a man who wants pounds 20 for a pink raffia version of the cap worn by Harry Enfield's 'You Don't Want To Do It Like That]' character should not be given a platform on national television to speak on matters of style.

There is a lot of old rubbish in the shop: a silver braided shirt, orange jeans, a sort of evening jacket with 10 pockets, including two at the back, all sewn in at hilarious angles. 'Who's going to buy that?' you ask the assistant. She laughs, and then repeats the question, pondering it perhaps for the first time: 'Who is going to buy that?'

But this is not quite fair, for all designers who show on the catwalks find themselves running up silly, ugly clothes to catch the attention of fashion journalists and photographers. Smith's only innovation is to open a shop that seems to carry only these items.

'Classic with a twist': this is the annoying phrase that may come to you as you stand in the Paul Smith Sale Shop. Smith once said this of his clothes, and it stuck. The phrase did not describe a design process; rather, it was classic jacket, twisty underpants. Smith is a master stylist whose outfits and shops combine the ordinary and the self-consciously eccentric. The sale shop is twist, but the regular outlets sell very well-made, expensive clothes in an environment of slight oddity - fringed socks, old punk albums, 1930s prints - that suggests to the customer he is doing something more amazing than picking up a pounds 100 cardigan.

For a man hoping to sell clothes to British men, Paul Smith began his career with two great advantages: heterosexuality and pronounceability. He was born in Nottingham in 1946. His father ran a 'credit drapery' business, delivering clothes to the door. Paul left school at 15, cycled with obsessive competitiveness and an eye to a professional career, then crashed horribly, and was in hospital for six months. He worked as a gofer in a clothing warehouse, and learnt how to liaise between manufacturers and retailers. His great skill in this kind of role, rather than the ability to produce objects of enormous beauty, seems to be at the heart of Smith's success today.

When he was 21, Smith met Pauline Denyer, a lecturer in fashion at Trent Polytechnic. She had two young sons, she had studied art with Hockney, and she wore dark glasses indoors - which Smith thought was marvellous. They became a couple, and remain one today, although they have never married. It was Denyer who encouraged Smith to move into fashion design. 'She taught me everything I know,' he has said.

He opened his first shop in Nottingham in 1970 (with a sign that said 'Vestes Pour Homme'); and his first in London nine years later. There is now a line of shops in Covent Garden, forming a sort of impromptu department store, full of little beards and jolly hetero banter. Smith's own office is directly above.

By the mid-1980s, Paul Smith was turning over about pounds 20m a year. A business built on smart gear for Notts mods found itself the toast of City bankers, management consultants and journalists. Smith rode the wave. Paul Smith: English name, not too poncy, won't look stupid by Christmas. And despite, or maybe because of, its very ordinariness, a Paul Smith suit became something of a cultural icon - just at the time when people started saying 'cultural icon' a lot. They put one of his suits in the V&A. Smith expanded; there are now 91 shops worldwide, including 78 in Japan. He has resisted offers made for the company, and has kept control. In 1992-3, the turnover was pounds 56m.

Now Paul Smith is a prosperous man of 47. In Japan, he is stopped for autographs. He has a house in Holland Park and another in Tuscany. He has many friends, some of them as famous as Daniel Day-Lewis. He drives an old Bristol, and resists most other gestures of ostentation.

But there is something worrying about the manner of Paul Smith. He has referred to Pauline as his 'lady' and himself as a 'loony'. On the Big Breakfast last week, he talked of female 'sticking-out bits'. He has a taste for gadgets, and rubber chickens. A favourite motif in his fabric prints is the tailoring 'joke' - images of buttons, tape measures, needles. A former employee remembers a business meeting in Japan during which, mid-sentence, Smith brought a clown's red nose from his pocket and put it on.

This all sounds unimaginably awful, in a Richard Branson, Radio 1, Duchess of York sort of way - but those who know him well say Smith is a fine man. No, really. Smith, we must accept, is someone good to spend time with - funny, generous and unaffected.

He is said to be a workaholic who strives to know everything about the business, and control everything. This, says someone who knows him well, 'is his greatest strength and his greatest weakness'. One glossy magazine editor describes him as 'a quiet megalomaniac'. But he is easy to get hold of on the telephone, and relaxed with his staff, who show long-term loyalty. His design second-in-command is a man called Derek Morton, who used to work in Italy, but came back because he couldn't stand the food. Morton's hobby is sheep. He comes to work practically covered in dung, it is said. Paul loves this, in a way that Gianni Versace probably wouldn't.

WE WILL have to see about the design crusade. For all the seeming justice of Smith's case, it is possible that it will accomplish nothing, and join the British film industry's laments in a whining duet at the edge of the national consciousness. But Smith will continue to visit the DTI, go to the conferences, meet the students. In an industry of general ridiculousness, he will remain vaguely ordinary. Asked about Smith last week, one fashion authority described how he did something rather uncool at the recent Paris shows; it was to do with coming on stage with misjudged liveliness at the end of the show, masquerading as one of the lads, rather than merely bathing in the applause of audience and models. Or something like that. 'You wouldn't understand,' says the fashion authority, 'but he didn't get it quite right.'

(Photograph omitted)