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

British designer Paul Smith has been paying attention to the finer details for more than 40 years, writes Jing Zhang

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 6:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 6:42pm

"The thing about design is that it should be about spontaneity," says Paul Smith. "It shouldn't be about the tail wagging the dog. It should be about the designer going at it with his heart and his head, and not being forced into trends."

Smith, who is 67, still cuts a sprightly figure in his newly renovated Ocean Centre store in Tsim Sha Tsui. He looks sharp with his floppy, silver mane and black rimmed glasses, and comes without the entourage fashion designers usually have following them around. Fans have lined up around the store to get a glimpse of him, waving frantically in our direction. Smith, who has no airs and graces, waves back, shouting a hello.

A lot of designer labels really pushed it [on the mainland] and it didn't work

"We are not a big brand that is on the stock market," he says. "We are privately owned, and I am the boss and still the designer. We promote it a bit, but it's nothing compared to the millions and millions [of dollars] that some of the other brands use. What's lovely is that we've got a fan club of people who just like what I do."

Despite all the modesty, Paul Smith is not exactly a small brand. Smith has 3,500 staff in Japan, 1,000 in Europe and about 1,500 global points of sale. He manages numerous fashion lines and designer ranges, has a knighthood and is often referred to as a legend. He remains one of Britain's biggest and best fashion exports.

This year exciting things are happening for the brand, especially in China. On November 15, Smith's retrospective exhibition "Hello, My Name is Paul Smith", opens at the London Design Museum. The accompanying Rizzoli book, Hello, My Name is Paul Smith: Fashion and Other Stories, sold out on pre-orders and is already in its second run. On the business side, Smith opened a store in Beijing's Sanlitun in May, one is scheduled for Shanghai in December and two more are planned in Chengdu - all of which will be opened in conjunction with ImagineX, a sister company to the Lane Crawford empire.

Smith claims that the company's regional growth has been steady, rather than rushed like some other international fashion labels. "I've always felt that it needs to happen naturally," he says. "A lot of designer labels really pushed it [on the mainland] and it didn't work." The bonus for Smith was that he discovered "quite a nice, young following of the brand here, which I never realised".

Smith's relationships with travel and music, and his early successes in Japan are well-documented. But there is also his relationship with artists such as New York musician Patti Smith, who, like the designer, was an early adopter of cool androgyny. Flicking through this season's look books, it's clear that this androgyny is still a mainstay of the brand.

"I love you girls in boy's clothing," he says. "To me, the sexiness of a woman is the collarbone, the shoulders and the ribcage. So you don't have to go down an obvious route. The feeling of mystery is very sexy too."

This comes as no surprise, considering that Smith's fame stemmed from menswear. His cool, modern aesthetic was a revelation to men in the 1970s and '80s; there was finally an alternative to bulky, staid salesman suits. "Tailoring is still our biggest category," says Smith.

I check the pad stitching in the lapel of a suit and the hand stitching down the leg; the workmanship is impressive. "My training was tailoring, and that's apparent in the detailing of our clothes," says Smith. "My wife was my teacher: she taught me at home. And she trained at the Royal College of Art when they were still teaching couture fashion. It was all about making everything yourself."

Smith clearly works hard, but he also gets to exercise his eccentricities in a wide range of interests. A keen photographer who does his own campaigns, Smith has even taken time in Hong Kong to photograph 10 young, local creative talents for a one-off project.

He also designs toys, interiors, furniture, bicycles and homeware, and loves art. The new flagship store in London's Mayfair features 26,000 dominoes displayed like a mosaic on the walls, and has a photography exhibition scheduled for the show space there, along with an exhibit of hand-beaded skulls from Mexico. "The great thing with this label is that no one can really put us in a box," he says. "You can muck about; you don't have to take yourself too seriously."

This approach allows him to escape the mania of today's fashion treadmill, he says: "The absurdity of having more, more, more ... it's relentless."

This vicious cycle has pressured more insecure designers to "feel that they have to be part of a certain club, have the cliché parties and a selection of friends from certain categories of the industry. I've always been an oddball from that point of view," Smith says. "I just do my own thing."

The retrospective and the book neatly pull together the ideas that make him so interesting and unique: the collaborations, the archive pieces and the personal effects, like the little notes he writes on Post-its in the middle of the night. One says, "Happiness is the road to everything", another "Make room to break the rules".

As disciplined as Smith is with tailoring and structures, it's this relaxed, fun-loving charm that forms the core of the man and the label. It's kept him happy, playful and inspired over more than four decades in fashion - and it has kept his loyal fans of all ages entertained. "A lightheartedness and humour" is how he describes it.

"Luckily," says Smith, "I've got this really strong sense of being."

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