The Guardian view on Paul Smith: at the crease after a half century

Editorial
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Alan Davidson/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Alan Davidson/REX/Shutterstock

One of the least-noticed victims of the pandemic has been the “traditional” fashion show. Last summer the big houses were forced, in the main, to film collections and put them online. Gone were the closely packed rows of fellow fashion victims checking out catwalk garb. It may be time to wave the shows goodbye. Paul Smith, who has survived half a century in an industry littered with corporate gravestones, sees upsides. He told the Guardian that “you’ll see far more” online than seated in the front row of a regular fashion show. “The detail of the shoes or the bags or the pocket. When you think about [a model] walking down the catwalk, you normally see them for about 12 seconds.”

Jetting around the world is a climate killer, so fewer shows, as Mr Smith wants, would help save the planet. But isn’t fashion best enjoyed in a crowd? Could it survive without the hype? Surely the digital world is not as vivid as the real world? The way the light catches the cloth can’t be replicated on a screen, and fabric’s texture is surely best when eyed up-close? Yet Mr Smith’s views cannot be discounted. He has always succeeded because he has anticipated the shape of things to come.

He played a big role in making men less frightened of a flash of colour or the occasional foray into dandyism. With no formal fashion education, his teacher was his girlfriend and now wife, Pauline Denyer, who trained in handmaking couture clothes and remains his biggest influence. He’s also a canny businessman. With his stores closed during lockdown, Mr Smith’s online sales are up 49% over the last six months.

While the air is now thick with lamentation for bricks-and-mortar shopping, the Paul Smith signature can be found outside premises from New York to New Delhi. Those shops do far more than clothes. Their windows can display paintings or pink-and-lilac vacuum cleaners, and basements sometimes serve as studios for artists. The branch on Melrose Avenue is a giant hot-pink shoebox, among the most Instagrammed buildings in Los Angeles. That sense of theatre is at odds with much of modern shopping, which has been standardised into dullness.

Going against the grain, often humorously, seems part of his character. Mr Smith grew his firm on his own terms. He manages cashflow carefully, and, taking his wife’s advice, avoids big bank loans. Where other brands are often in the hands of either a massive conglomerate or a private equity firm, Paul Smith is largely owned by... Paul Smith. That means he has to think about tailoring his suits and adapting to new business realities. Yet it also frees him from the pressure to maximise returns and means the business can fund scholarships for artists or establish a foundation to encourage young creatives.

Fashion is in a turbulent period, and there must be question marks over how much a future of working from home requires formalwear, no matter how finely cut or soft of shoulder. Mr Smith’s overall turnover shrank in the pandemic. He’s also said Brexit is bad for his company. But businesses that have not gone up like a rocket may avoid coming down like a stick. Will Paul Smith endure when he finally retires? One can only hope so.