Most Successful British Designer Wouldn't Get Recognized in America
|Sir Paul Smith, Westbourne House|
When I was a young pup in college, I dated a rather comely, totally in-the-know (a little too in the know in some respects if you catch my drift) young woman. She and I were fast becoming "of the" and finding our way "in the" world; you know, deciding what things we were going to reject from our betters, and appreciating what we thought was important, and even learning what we liked doing with our free-time.
Part of this transmogrification included the personal fashion styles we aspired to, which ultimately meant we were growing apart faster than a NASA shuttle being launched from Cape Canaveral leaves behind its temporary mooring. She the fiery and fleeing temptress, I the temporary stabling force. For awhile there, right near the end of our six or seven years together, she grew into a club kid looking for the next party wearing her outfits with leg warmers and gold belts and brightly colored skirts and pants, and I remained the boring (mooring) boyfriend, digging my trad style, even rocking several bow ties at various weddings and proper events.
I can remember one night where she was so embarrassed by my sartorial display at her company dinner, that she actually asked me to (the horror) take off my bow tie because I looked like a waiter. Classic line. I actually laughed, but knew that we were done. Within six months, we were broken up. I then, the dutiful dumpee, dropped out of undergrad for almost a year, and then dropped about three grand adding some new additions to my wardrobe which would include Willie Smith (Willie Wear), Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein, "creepers" and Doc Martins, Armani, and even some Tommy Hilfiger. I grew my hair long, and then found myself back in school, living with three girlfriends from high school, and trying to figure things out anew and by myself, the way it should be.
But, this lovely ex-girlfriend did add two things of lasting genius and import to my life down in Malibu one fine afternoon. It was my 20th birthday, and she gave me a brand new book by Michael Chabon (who, some of you may recall, would become my favorite author ever, and whom I just happened to run into, almost literally, at SFO airport this past Thursday afternoon as I was running to gate 90) his master's thesis-cum-future novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. This petite beauty also gave me a skillfully tailored, blue-striped Paul Smith collared shirt. Never had I owned any shirt like it before. I felt like an adult wearing it. An adult with fine taste.
We sat there enjoying a nice lunch in the shade, and I was a bit amped because I had just met Ben Stein for the second time (he was teaching at Pepperdine), whose writing and voice I'd always admired, and I was with my gal, and we were happy and had nothing but the future in front of us. Well, at least a few more months. By the bye, I still have to share with you, Dear Reader, how Mr. Stein encouraged me to go to law school. But, that's for another post.
So, Paul Smith and his style and influence and expensive clothing. I wore that shirt of his out. I mean I even had the cuffs replaced because I didn't want to part with that shirt. I bought others, but that one was special. Within the last couple of years Paul Smith (GQ’s multi-winning designer-of-the-year) has opened shops in Los Angeles and San Francisco, hoping to finally crack that American market. Each of these buildings reflects an architectural through-line back to Paul Smith himself: colorful, drawing influences from sport, history, art, pop-culture or modern architecture. Paul Smith the brand continues to open stand-alone shops throughout the world, including this past month with a new 3-story flagship in Seoul, South Korea, featuring Paul Smith’s personal art collection on its walls.
British designer Paul Smith is not a household name in America; not yet I don't think. I mean you probably know him. I know him. But, whereas the average Joe or Jill American can recognize Armani or Tommy or Calvin ... Paul? Not so much. And that bothers me.
Where the French have always had a reputation for women’s fashion, it is the Brits, well, London’s Savile Row specifically, that has the well-earned reputation for turning out men in bespoke suits, fitting the country’s elite and sophisticated and, yes, the wealthy in clothes that definitely make the man.
But, truth be told, these companies churning out high-end men’s fashion haven’t been “British” in the strictest sense for decades; they can be, and are often, owned by multinational corporations headquartered in France, Italy or Japan. The designers, and their sense of style, most assuredly rock a British idiom that push past typical Savile Row boundaries, leaving the shores of England as fast as any Virgin airlines jet can whisk them away.
The globalization of British men’s and women’s fashion is certainly alive and well from Asia through to America, with the likes of British (and award-winning) designers like Christopher Bailey (Burberry), John Galliano (Dior), and recently departed Alexander McQueen influencing the way men and woman are dressing.
Bringing us back to the iconic British designer Paul Smith, who is arguably the most successful designer in British history. Knighted by the Queen in 2000, Paul Smith’s fashion strengths have always played to a man’s sensibility: well-made clothing with just a touch of unique style as seen in his signature multicolored stripes. Sir Paul’s fashion house, still independently owned, supposedly has revenues now past $600 million from 48 different countries, including 12 different men’s and women’s lines, licensing and limited edition deals with Evian water, cameras, Cross pens, Barneys New York, luggage, furniture, skis, and the list and revenues go on (and on).
In his book Paul Smith: you can find inspiration in everything (2003), author Sir Paul says that we should seek to be childlike, not childish; and that the key to staying inspired is to see and to think about the world horizontally, where we can find inspiration from all of the things around us (not other designers). As Paul Smith expansion continues around the globe, his personal inspiration is sure to follow. Now, if I just had that blue stripped shirt back.