Fashion · University

Paul Smith: Gentleman Designer

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An intimate and provoking portrait of “Lord Paul Smith”, quirky designer and formidable businessman, through exclusive access to a poet of British fashion.

Paul Smith has 400 shops and outlets in 35 countries, 12 clothing lines, 400 million Euros in yearly revenues, sales topping Chanel’s, partnerships with Evian, Apple, and Austin, and prestigious bicycle and race car brands.

The secret of his success? Who is Paul Smith? How has he managed to get millions of men interested in fashion? How did a modest man from Nottingham become synonymous with elegance in men’s fashion?

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We are almost always get reminded by our lecturers to look for inspiration outside fashion and to broaden our knowledge across all sectors. Well, Paul Smith is another example of why we should really listen to them. Paul collects inspiration around the world during his travels and he takes photos all the time. There was a clip of him during an early morning with his camera taking photos of his surroundings (the fairground, the rides etc.) and explaining that so many people miss out on ideas and life as they’re still in bed. This makes me more motivated to get out there and even just a walk around the city center or the park. You’ll never know when an idea hits you. Paul Smith almost exists outside of trends, he doesn’t just look to fashion for ideas. He’s interested in things that are not necessarily related to fashion at all.

I never expected the main designer, head, and the name of the brand would be so involved in casting. Paul Smith himself plays a very active role in photography, art direction and even styling his own campaigns and look books. It was fascinating to see him taking photos, instructing the models on how to act/walk on the runway and even fixes the ties/buttons on shirts. He has his own vision and sticks to it. Like one of the staff said “he doesn’t need to write a brief. He knows what he wants.” While casting male models for the runway show, he also mentioned that the brand tend to go for the long-haired, messy, alternative looking rather than the perfect models as he views the fashion show more rock and roll and the fact that a lot of his clients are musicians.

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I found Paul Smith to be a very pleasant man and a super talented designer and creative director. He shared with us how he became a designer and how he didn’t had any fabrics back then except for the basics – white, black, grey fabrics – and he had to create a shirt that would stand out from the other designers so he got the idea of introducing colourful stripes/buttons which resulted in his suits having more character. He also undertook valuable primary research at Portobello Market, checking out the competition while finding inspiration. His office is full of visual inspiration with sketchbooks, swatches of fabrics and books.

Another aspect gave me a glimpse of a much broader global market and how they interact with and perceive a brand like Paul Smith. With 200 stores in Japan alone (yet only 17 in England!), it’s easy to see why his brand and Paul Smith himself is so successful here and especially in Asia. He is widely regarded as a star, a celebrity in Japan. Paul Smith mentioned that other brands and designers couldn’t understand his business there. He visits frequently and tends to hold 20 to 30 interviews, which maintains his popularity with his fans and clients. We got shown clips of him posing and supporters getting his autographs and it was so lovely to see him being really friendly and accommodating to fans, as I’m sure this will make him more ‘relatable’ and ‘human’ than other luxury brands out there. Even he mentioned he “touch far more people the way he is”. He interacts with his clients on a more personal level than his competitors. They admire and respect him and they like the way he is. They know his way of life, his likes and dislikes, his interests etc. As for the brand’s aesthetic, maybe the Japanese culture like the very ‘English’ look of the stores, as this enables them to see a different kind of retail experience.

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In terms of communication, he mentioned that while there are a lot of talented designers out there, they are not aware of what is currently happening in the world today and their huge egos ultimately distances themselves from their staff and clients. Paul hopes to have found the balance of being a businessman and a designer. He admitted that maybe the trend should be more trendy or innovative but I think a lot of his clients are proud of the traditional British timeless quality his clothes demonstrate. Instead of the usual elegant illustrations from designers, Paul Smith tends to go for more dialogue and clear instructions and for lookbook campaigns, he wants to display the mood rather than the detail of the clothing as we are all already bombarded with imagery constantly.

I admit I didn’t really know a lot about Paul Smith prior to the film but upon seeing it, I’m very pleased and have now a positive reaction to the brand and to Paul Smith himself. Before, I wasn’t too fond of his clothes but I can now appropriate the brand, the message and what they stand for. Every Monday, I have been pleased with FCP film club sessions as they give me valuable insight into brands I wouldn’t really be interested in or sought out more information about. As for Paul Smith, I’m definitely going to visit his Nottingham shop at Byard Lane soon.

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