Inside the mind of the long-standing (and legendary) suit-maker

Words: Charlotte Core

Famed for its distinctive multicoloured stripes and eye-catching storefront designs, Paul Smith has grown from a fledgling shirt business based in a tiny, windowless room in a Nottingham back alley to a multi-million-pound empire that spans the four corners of the globe and sells products ranging from suits to cycling helmets. Sir Paul Smith himself owns all of his stores outright (that’s over 300, btw), was knighted in 2000, is something of a Britpop icon in Japan, and just happens to be one of the nicest men in the industry. So, how does a school drop-out become the UK’s most successful fashion export?

Born in Nottingham in 1946, Sir Paul had dreamt of being a professional cyclist, but a major accident at the age of 17 dashed those hopes. During his recovery, he began hanging around a local pub, frequented by students from the local art school who taught him (among other things) that Bauhaus wasn’t the name of a nearby housing estate – and his spark for design was born. Swapping cycling shorts for suits (and gaining extra tutelage from his then girlfriend, now wife, fashion design teacher Pauline Denyer), Sir Paul went on to work in a local fashion shop, dressing windows and writing invoices, before learning tailoring from the experts on Savile Row. Soon after, Paul Smith – the brand – was born.

Portrait painting by Karl Kopinski, Early photograph of Paul Smith, A model train set in Paul Smith's London office, Paul Smith in his first store on Byard Lane, Nottingham, 1970

A familiar fixture in wardrobes worldwide, Paul Smith has been the go-to for a well-made suit for years – and for good reason. The brand’s down-to-earth, inclusive charm is the antithesis to the somewhat intimidating, by-invitation-only world of tailoring. Like its steadfast founder, Paul Smith’s designs are all about playing the long game. The suits, casual wear and accessories feel both classic and innovative, with a hint of British irreverence and eccentricity woven in for good measure.

Here, we celebrate a rock-steady, independent fashion icon who’s still working the shop floor, 50 years on.

Paul Smith Spring/Summer 1990 

You weren’t introduced to fashion until you were in your early twenties. What’s your first memory of feeling ‘dressed up’?

You have to remember that when I was younger, we didn’t have access to the kinds of creative types of clothing that are so available today. I remember having my first-ever bespoke suit made out of pink fabric. The tailor and everyone I passed on the street thought I was completely mad, but I just thought it was the best thing ever.

Your first brush with the arts was when you met art and design students in a local pub – do you remember what you discussed?

I remember them telling me all about the Bauhaus (which at the time I thought was a local housing estate) and Le Corbusier. I just became so fascinated by this world of creativity that up to then I’d known nothing about.

What was the biggest ‘pinch-me’ moment when you started your label?

Probably my first fashion show in my friend’s apartment in Paris in 1977 – or ’76, maybe, I can’t remember! And then obviously [opening] my first tiny, tiny little shop in my hometown of Nottingham on 9 October 1970.


I remember them telling me all about the Bauhaus – which at the time I thought was a local housing estate – and Le Corbusier. I just became so fascinated by this world of creativity.

Paul Smith Spring/Summer 1990 

You’ve been designing formalwear since the 70s. How do you stay inspired?

I always say, “You can find inspiration in everything and if you can’t, look again". I’m lucky enough to wake up every morning and look forward to a new day. I find everything around me endlessly inspiring – anyone who has been following my Instagram during lockdown will see how I’m surrounded by inspiration in my office in London.

Your background is in bricks-and-mortar commerce – how do you think that influenced your label’s direction?

I’ve always kept my feet firmly on the ground and never lost sight of the person who’s paying my bills: the customer. One of the highlights of my week is spending time working in one of my London shops, which I have the opportunity to do most Saturdays. The experiences I have speaking to the customers constantly influence the work that I do.

Do you have occasions when customers chat to you without knowing who you are?

From time to time. To be honest, whether they know who I am or not, I would always treat them exactly the same, and most of the time, the first thing I do when I speak to people is introduce myself.

Paul Smith Spring/Summer 1990 
Paul Smith store, Los Angeles 

You have stores all over the world. What’s one of your favourite locations to visit?

I always say it’s impossible to choose favourites. as it depends so much on your mood, but I have a very long-standing and special relationship with Japan. We have a very big business there, which has come about from years and years of regular visits and me playing a very active role in making sure we do things properly. I love so much about Japanese culture.

What does British style mean to you today?

Initially, British style was very reliant on the class system – on ‘London Town’ pinstriped suits, and then tweed for the countryside. But now, with the world of fashion being so international, there’s not such an obvious ‘British’ look.


I’ve always kept my feet firmly on the ground and never lost sight of the person who’s paying my bills: the customer.


Backstage at the Paul Smith Autumn/Winter 2020 show

If you see someone out on the street wearing Paul Smith, how do you feel?

Proud, of course! I can also often remember exactly where the fabric came from, or when the particular print was developed. I have quite a memory for details like that – people are very often impressed!

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

‘Never assume’. It’s the company motto, and it has helped both me personally and the business through so many scrapes.

What’s been the hardest work hurdle you’ve had to overcome?

Probably the hardest hurdle I’ve had to encounter is selling [products] in 73 countries; each country has a different view on fashion, and each country has a different priority. It could be sportwear or tailoring…how people dress. And then, of course, keeping a business going for a long time.

Backstage at the Paul Smith Autumn/Winter 2020 show

Who are your style icons?

Daniel Day-Lewis and David Bowie – both people who I’ve been lucky enough to call friends.

Can you describe a piece of art you have hanging in your studio – what does it mean to you?

Anyone who’s seen a photo of my studio will know that there are rather a lot of things hanging on the walls. The portrait of me [pictured] is by a friend called Karl Kopinski. Karl is a fellow bike rider and also a brilliantly talented artist. We’ve worked together on various things over the years.

How do you like to switch off after a long day?

I don’t think I really know what ‘switching off’ means! My head is spinning more or less constantly. I start work very early in the morning and my favourite time of the day is around 6:30am. I’m the only person in the office, I can put on some music and just get on with things. If I’m not travelling, I try to be home by 6pm to have dinner with Pauline, my wife.



There have been lots of discussions about how the retail landscape will change…seasonless clothes, fewer deliveries going into the shop, maybe only two collections a year.

Backstage at the Paul Smith Autumn/Winter 2020 show

Favourite place in London to grab a drink or dinner?

It totally depends on your mood, but both Claridge’s and The Wolseley are places that I have a lot of very fond memories.


How many ‘lucky rabbits’ have you accumulated over the years? Which one’s your favourite?

Too many to count! Pauline gives me a new one before every one of my fashion shows as a good-luck charm, and they are all particularly beautiful.


Your SS20 collection was inspired by the colour palettes of Robert Rauschenberg. Are there any other artists that speak to you?

It’s impossible just to list a few! I’m endlessly inspired by art and creativity, in all its forms. I’m lucky enough to get access to the Tate [galleries] early in the morning and be given extra-special private tours. Recently, I’ve seen shows by everyone from Steve McQueen to Olafur Eliasson, and many more – all of them are inspiring in different ways.

Backstage at the Paul Smith Autumn/Winter 2020 show
Backstage at the Paul Smith Autumn/Winter 2020 show

How do you see the retail landscape changing post Covid-19?

There have been lots of discussion about how the retail landscape will change, and how the world of fashion will change. A lot of discussion about seasonless clothes, fewer deliveries going into the shop, maybe only two collections a year. Also, delivering clothes to the relevant season and not having winter going in [stores] in June or July, which is obviously very sensible. Nobody’s been brave enough to commit to anything yet, so let’s wait and see.


What do you hope for the future of Paul Smith?

One of the things I’m most proud of is continuity, so, for the future of Paul Smith, more of the same, please!