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Paul Smith

Standout design has made the fashion brand a success in the UK and abroad.

As legend has it, sport's loss was British fashion's gain after Paul Smith, then a keen amateur cyclist, collided with a car while out riding. The Nottingham lad's dream of becoming the next Tom Simpson was waylaid, and he spent the following six months recovering.

When he had healed, Smith began hanging around with an arty crowd he met after his accident. His employer, a clothing warehouse, also spotted his new-found talent for making displays and put him in charge of buying its menswear.

This growing interest in fashion led to Smith opening a clothing boutique in Nottingham. Soon he began making a few items of his own to sell alongside brand names. His designs became more popular, and by 1976 he exhibited a men's collection in Paris under the Paul Smith brand name.

From that point on, the brand name has gradually become synonymous with a classic British look with a twist.

As he would later become one of the progenitors of 'Cool Britannia', it is telling that the first product Smith sold is said to have been a Union Jack hanky.

His suits sell to rock stars such as Paul Weller, as well as Bank of England governor Mervyn King. The elegant lines and attention to detail are as much a trademark as the striking linings.

Like many British designers, Smith's greatest success has been abroad. This is particularly true in Japan, where the brand has more than 200 outlets. This has been built on the back of a long-term relationship with licensee Itochu. The latter lost money on the brand for the first three years before the profits started to flow, and in 2006 it bought a 40% stake in the business.

Paul Smith has pursued a philosophy of good financial housekeeping. It is a rare British financial success story in fashion, turning over about £180m in 2010. Smith himself remains the major shareholder, after deciding against selling the business in the early 90s.

Instead, it has pursued gradual expansion, both in terms of product launches, and geographically.

In the early days of the business, Smith would unearth cool products for the shops to sell.

Those 'magpie' instincts have helped the brand extend across several areas including luggage, fragrances, furniture, watches, eyewear and womenswear - many bearing his signature multi-coloured stripes. However, Smith resists accusations of 'brand slap'. There are now 12 Paul Smith collections bearing his distinctive signature.


Silas Amos, creative strategist, JKR

Silas Amos, creative strategist, JKR

'I give classics just a little kick,' says the great man, and that pretty much sums it up; but Paul Smith is being rather modest. That kick works only because of the quality of the design and manufacture, and resonates only because it has a genuine sense of spirit, rather than being something 'bolted on'.

Paul Smith's work feels like the output of an enthusiast - from the playful windows to the curating of various art books and objects at the back of the shops. One gets a sense of genuine pleasure being taken. You can't fake this stuff: when it's real you can almost smell it.

My art teacher in the brand's Nottingham hometown was flown to Tokyo in the 80s to paint a trompe l'oeil £5 note on the floor of the brand's flagship store. That's pretty bonkers in purely business terms, but success can fall out of such a spirit.

The brand's design is also about the judicious use of contrasts - those lairy, stripy colours are set off by the dark wood floors, and the flash of colour on a buttonhole is set against a basically dark grey suit. For we repressed chaps stuck with sludgy or monochrome wardrobes, all those bright stripy accessories deliver the equivalent of a pick-n-mix sugar rush to a five-year-old.

Some brands have consumers; Paul Smith tends to have fans. A case of getting back what you give, perhaps? Now, if he could only give an occasional 'little kick' to his occasionally snooty staff, life would be sublime.


1970: Smith opened his first shop, in Nottingham.

1979: First London shop opened in Floral Street, Covent Garden.

1984: Paul Smith Ltd signed licence contract with Japanese company, C Itoh, later known as Itochu.

1991: Paul Smith received the British Designer for Industry Award and launched his childrenswear range.

1993: Launched accessories range and the first Paul Smith Women collection.

1994: Paul Smith debuted spectacles, luggage and watch collections.

1995: The company was awarded The Queen's Award for Industry for export achievement.

2000: Paul Smith received a knighthood.

2003: The 'Furniture and Things' collection was launched.

2006: Licensee Itochu bought 40% of the business.

2011: Paul Smith received Outstanding Achievement in Fashion Design accolade at British Fashion Awards.

View more Champions of Design


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