Half a century ago, Paul Smith a 24-year-old lad from Beaston wandered into a windowless 3-square-metre room in Nottingham (a city known for its role in the Robin Hood legends), in central England and set up shop selling clothes and some odd bits such as records and magazines. He earned 35 pounds on the very first day—a sign of good things to come.
Fifty years later, Paul Smith is a global luxury brand selling to 3000 stores in more than 70 countries on five continents. Guardian reported that the business had a turnover of £215 million in 2019, which was 9% up on 2018.
What’s also unique is that, in a world where most luxury brands are owned by just four companies—LVMH, Richemont, Luxottica, and Kering—Sir Paul Smith (he was knighted by the Queen in 2000) is one of the last independent global designers. Even Italian designer Giorgio Armani placed the ownership of his $3-billion fashion house inside a foundation in 2016 to ensure its continuity.
Smith continues to hold 70% of his fashion business, the rest is held by Japanese trading company Itochu, a long-time partner of Smith. Smith first went to Japan in 1982, when the country was hardly considered a big market for western fashion. However, he established a name there and, three decades later, he continues to enjoy astounding success in Japan with over 200 sales points.
Success came early to Smith. Within six years of having set up his little shop, which was open for business only on Fridays and Saturdays and was manned by his huge Afghan hound, Homer, he held a fashion show at a friend’s apartment in Paris. It showcased his first men’s collection which featured a mix of casual and semi-formal wear.
Following its success, Paul Smith continued to grow, with the first flagship London store opening in 1979 in Covent Garden.
Smith has grown to become one of Britain’s foremost designers. Everything sold by Paul Smith continues to be designed in the U.K., with Smith himself playing an active role. Smith is renowned for his creative spirit, which combines tradition and modernity. Famous for men’s and women’s tailoring, clothing and accessories collections, the brand Paul Smith stands for an inventive use of traditional craftsmanship and cutting-edge design to create modern pieces.
Individuality is key to the Paul Smith ethos and is the theme that carries through all collections and products that the company creates. Smith is considered one of fashion’s true pioneers. Many things that people now consider the norm, such as a patterned lining, contrast cuffs, unusual buttons were all created by Smith.
In the 1980s, he reinvented boxer shorts in bright stripes and doodles and sold them to a global audience. In the 1990s, he was one of the first designers to print photographs on fabric. The technique reflected Smith’s keen interest in photography. Early prints were of photographs clicked by him and included apples, flowers, acorns, clouds, and an ivy coloured wall. But the print which became iconic was of a plate of spaghetti. Smith bought a wax model of a plate of spaghetti in Japan where he discovered a shop that sold wax food, designed for restaurant window displays.
Along with Giorgio Armani, Smith deconstructed the suit and pioneered a more relaxed cut and silhouette making it something that was no longer restricted to the boardroom. More recently, in 2015, Paul Smith launched ‘A Suit to Travel In’ created with movement and comfort in mind. It was launched by the British gymnast Max Whitlock who demonstrated the flexibility and crease resistance of the suit by performing a series of gymnastic moves while wearing it.
Smith is synonymous with colour and playful design, chiefly represented by the iconic stripe print which has had many incarnations over the years. The most recent of that is the Artist Stripe which was inspired by the colour combinations of expressionist art.
Since his debut in the 1970s, Paul Smith has flourished from a menswear designer into a global lifestyle company. Comprising clothing, shoes and accessory collections for men, women and children, the company has also extended its representation with product licenses in fragrance, eyewear and interiors.
However, womenswear made it to the Paul Smith collection only in 1993. It was after Smith discovered that nearly 15% of all his clothes were bought by women that he started considering designing for them.
Every Paul Smith shop is different
The quirkiness of Paul Smith designs which makes the brand such a success is also reflected in its retail stores. Each Paul Smith shop is different. So while London’s Mayfair shop has a room with 26,000 dominoes glued to the wall, the Paris shop is covered in hundreds of old mobile phones and the flagship store in Tokyo has a wall full of cassette tapes.
The Paul Smith store in Delhi is in the upmarket DLF Emporio mall and has a wall covered with abstract art. The Paul Smith store in Los Angeles is a modernist bright pink box and is one of the most instagrammable spots in the city while the Hamburg store is housed in an 18th-century townhouse. It’s all about finding the smartest way to stand out.
As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, an eponymous book has been launched which celebrates Paul’s varied inspirations through portraits of fifty objects. The book weaves together the selected objects along with quotes and contributions from many of Smith’s friends and collaborators from across his fifty years in business.
He has also launched a 50th anniversary capsule collection of casual menswear which looks into the vast back-catalogue of photo prints that Paul Smith has created over the years.
Another interesting aspect of the anniversary celebrations is the launch of the Paul Smith Foundation which will give helpful advice to creative people.