A self-taught polymath whose name appears on over 370 stores around the world, Mr. Smith spoke by telephone on subjects ranging from the perils of the high street to finding fashion cues in the frescoes of Fra Angelico.
Given that your label is based in London and you show in Paris, what is it that lured you to Florence and Pitti Uomo?
I was talking to Raffaello Napoleone [director of the Pitti Immagine trade group] and he said, “We’d love to have you back, but please don’t do a fashion show.” He said, “Let’s just have a presentation and a bar, because people love to talk to you.”
That is true. And if someone asked you what, in the decades since you started in the business, are the biggest changes, what would your answer be?
I started doing men’s wear in the year the wheel was invented, and everything has changed absolutely massively since then. When I started out, there was a lot less selection of fabrics, a lot less awareness of fashion with everyday people. There was no fast-fashion and no e-commerce. We have gotten so many more men’s magazines since then, and so there is much more interest in things like personal grooming and men just generally thinking about how they look. Now you could argue that there’s saturation — too many products and too many designers.
I think that argument makes itself.
Look at the sheer volume of product that’s available. Look through the list of shows from 10 years ago and look now. There are many, many more brands trying to break into the market in the world of men’s.
And can the market sustain them?
Personally, as a company, we’re doing fine. We’re pretty level at the moment. But I think a lot of people are going through a difficult period because of oversaturation.
Does so-called oversaturation lead to a kind of commercial aesthetic blur, where consumers have difficulty differentiating one label from another?
Yes, but that is true not necessarily only in fashion. I hate the expression, but you need a DNA of your brand, a point of view. Someone like myself, I now do runway or catwalk twice a year and that’s it.
So by reducing your offerings and show schedule, are you doubling down on core identity?
Especially in the United States, there is so much good nonfashion fashion: a good chino pant, a good Oxford cloth shirt. There are so many of those brands making good quality basics. And then, on the other hand, you’ve got the high-fashion brands.
And do you fall somewhere in the middle?
We’ve been around a long time. We’re an independent company owned by me. We’re not under the pressure or the greed of shareholders, and so the brand identity can be more spontaneous and natural. We can go with our guts, which you probably can’t do if you’re part of one of the big groups.
Haven’t you always to some extent existed just outside the system?
I never trained as a fashion designer. My teacher was my girlfriend then, who is now my wife. My design ability luckily developed a bit more organically. I started with just a few pieces and the question, “Why would somebody buy a shirt from me, a nobody, age 21 and from a provincial English town?”
And the answer you came up with?
Well, it wasn’t a shirt with seven zips. I came up with the idea of a colored buttonhole or having each button a different color, or putting a pattern in the lining. I was the first to use photo-print fabrics for linings.
That is the famous “classic with a twist” tagline. Even Wikipedia attributes it to you.
Essentially, for me it was about an easy-to-wear, non-instruction-book garment. A Paul Smith jacket looked like a jacket but had a sense of humor about it. When you reached for a pen or a handkerchief or glass of wine, you suddenly saw the lining was floral.
With the possible exception of Gucci, it seems playfulness has disappeared from design.
So many of the brands are part of global money machines that designers are probably too nervous to be playful.
Is must be tough nowadays for designers to follow intuition — or express their individuality, for that matter — with C.E.O.s pressuring them to keep producing an item they sold a million of last season.
What I think is that, with everything that’s happened politically in Italy, France, Britain, you see a need for gentle street culture to emerge again. A lot of the youth are disturbed by globalization, by the domination of a relatively few people and brands.
What do you mean by a “gentle street culture”?
In England, we had the Mods, the Punks, the New Romantics, the skinheads, and those movements were not about self-expression through aggression or rioting. They came out of people wanting to look different from other people.
Are those movements less possible in a digital culture? With your label and your stores filled with an eclectic array of offerings — from striped socks to vintage vinyl to cuff links — you’re a flag-bearer for the analog.
The room where I’m sitting right now is full of many, many objects, lots and lots of vinyl. The first thing I do when I get to work is put on a record. The ideas come from there.
For your spring 2017 men’s wear show in Paris, a kind of sartorial homage to Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer — that could have been taken literally.
In the late 1950s, a lot of the Caribbean community came to live in London and embraced the area of Notting Hill Gate, where they’d have a carnival every August. In the late 1960s, when I was a young man, I used to stay in a pal’s squat in Notting Hill Gate and sleep on the floor. The whole area then was full of dub and reggae music, and that was such a wonderful period for me. I happened to hear some of the music again, and suddenly it all just popped back into my head.
And what can we expect of the collection you’ll show at Pitti Uomo?
When I first came to visit New York in 1974 or 1976, I went straight to SoHo, which was still the artists’ area then. You had the wonderful Leo Castelli Gallery and Pace Gallery and OK Harris doing photorealism, and you had Pearl Paint, where all the artists bought the materials they wanted, and lots of specialty shops that don’t exist anymore. I remember sitting in the window of Fanelli’s Cafe, and who should go by but the British sculptor Richard Wentworth. I thought, “This is the place to be.” So I’m basing the spring ’18 collection on that visit.
Is it the decade that’s important or your experience of that New York that resonates for you?
Both, really. A lot of designers now are looking over each other’s shoulders and mostly referencing what other people are doing, which is so boring. The references are from the internet or whatever decade people are obsessed about. You wish they’d open their eyes and think a bit more laterally.
What do you mean?
Of course, you’ve got to know what the other trends are and what other designers are doing, so you know what not to do. But I’m blessed by the fact that I’m open to lots of influences. On a trip I took along the Piero della Francesca trail in Italy, I finished up in Urbino and you’re looking at the sandals in one of his paintings and suddenly you think, “Oh, Manolo Blahnik!” On a tour we did of Palladio’s work in the Veneto region outside Venice, you saw the perfect classical proportions of those villas and can easily translate it into design. You looked at a jacket and thought immediately of Palladio’s symmetry: pocket-pocket is equivalent to window-window, a portico is equivalent to a jacket’s opening.