Paul Smith refocuses on the basics to court millennials, and denies he only dresses the fashionable office rebel

Trousers for travelling, a suit built for bicycle commuting, a reflective rain jacket - Smith’s new collection for diffusion line PS, shown at Pitti Uomo in Florence, makes pragmatism seem a pleasure

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 January, 2017, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 January, 2017, 5:49pm

If you work in an office where men wear nice suits, chances are you have at least one “Paul Smith Guy”.

This person fancies himself a bit of a rocker, the type who will agree to conform, but in the most riotously possible way. Paul Smith’s meticulously mischievous suits, socks, and other accessories offer gentlemen of this type quiet ways to be loud. The hallmark details are not merely whimsical, they’re gently subversive in their flashiness. The vibrant fine points that have become the hallmarks of a Paul Smith suit – the punchy contrast stitching at buttonholes, the off-colour buttons, the miles of psychedelically bright jacket lining – lend poetry to workdays largely written in legalese.

Designer Paul Smith in Hong Kong: the need to change holds no fear for this survivor

Paul Smith, 70 years old, loves to explain that, at the beginning of his career, he adopted the splashy minutiae as a marketing technique. “I wanted to sell clothes, and I had to give people a reason to buy them,” he told me this month in Florence, Italy, at the menswear trade show Pitti Uomo.  

But the designer wants you to know that he is not here just to outfit the fashionable rebel in your office. “It would be incorrect of you to say that the suits are too gimmicky,” he says. Pointing to the many straightforward suits he produces for “the banking fraternity” of London, he argued that a cornerstone of his business is the basics: suits that are simply “well-made, good quality, simple cut, interesting fabric, easy to wear”.

And he wants to make sure his brand continues to spread its base. Hence his jaunt to Florence to shine a fluorescent light on his youthful diffusion line, PS by Paul Smith, and relaunch it with a tighter focus on basics.

Smith had not shown clothes at the Pitti Uomo trade show for 23 years, but he felt the 45-year-old menswear event would be the proper showcase to present the new collection, which translates both his classic constructions and his charming quirks into terms a millennial can relate to. 

In Florence, bypassing the straight and narrow conventions of a catwalk show, Smith staged an athletic modern-dance performance. (Yes, you’ve seen it before, but the clothes are fun, so Smith wanted the event to be fun, he said. “The press goes to so many traditional fashion shows that it’s numbing.”)

In a raw space accented with shocking-pink lights, the non-models wore clean-lined clothes that made pragmatism seem an absolute pleasure. There were trousers for travelling, a suit built for bicycle commuting, a reflective rain jacket, and, as usual, a general air of exuberance.

The morning after the presentation, the weather was cloudy – perfect conditions for Paul Smith’s sharp suit to pop vividly. It was a marine-blue number, with a white windowpane check, in a lightweight wool from Loro Piana, and it seemed to glow as Smith walked out of his shocking-pink showroom at the trade fair. Strutting lankily, he cut through the crowd, parted a hedge, and stepped sideways into a little alcove where janitors stow trash. As a reporter followed, he asked genially: “How do you like my new office?”

Paul Smith shows Hong Kong why he is in a class of his own

Despite (or because of) all that comes with being the majority owner of an enterprise that does business in 73 countries to the reported tune of US$300 million a year, Smith has a significantly youthful bounce that combines endearingly with the eccentricity of a very warm, slightly dotty uncle. “You might notice I’ve got a very strong personal energy,” Smith says, apologising for spitting a bit as he spoke. His interviewer had picked up on that within 30 seconds of meeting Smith, who unapologetically pinched him on the cheek.

No one wears a Paul Smith suit better than Paul Smith himself – a compliment that cannot be extended to all designers. When I admired it, he said, “My job is to wear things which are reflective of my character”.

The lining and binding and jetting of the suit Paul Smith wore were a tidy riot of orange and yellow and a turquoise that almost looks jade. Asked what inspired him to place that particular combination of colours on this particular suit, Smith said, characteristically, “I have no idea. These colours just pop into my head.”