Today, as part of Paris’ pared-back men’s fashion week, Sir Paul Smith mounted his AW21 collection as a fully digital presentation. Styled by Julian Ganio and devised for film by Chanel alumni George Harvey, the show was a clean-edged celebration of the best outerwear from across the past five decades.
It’s no secret that last year the nicest man in fashion celebrated his 50th year in business, so it seems only appropriate that this collection – devised, produced and refined during the various lockdowns – should constitute such a comprehensive celebration of Smith’s contribution to this country’s sartorial cannon.
Standing in notable contrast to the other collections that have paraded across the pixels of my laptop over the past week – primarily due to the fact that there wasn’t a long john, tracksuit or hoodie in sight – Smith instead chose to create garments that would work as well for a lockdown pop to the shops (we’re looking at you, oversized checked mackintosh) as they would for a tentative return to the office come spring (hello, Loro Piana worker suit).
Sir Paul took the time to talk to GQ following today’s show and we discussed the key pieces in the collection, the challenges of mounting a fashion show during a lockdown and what Brexit really means for British fashion.
GQ: Hi, Paul. Lovely to speak to you over the wire. Are you happy with the collection?
Sir Paul Smith: We’re thrilled with the collection. It’s very British and very Paul Smith, which is nice! It’s an overused expression, but I really wanted to make things people could put in their existing wardrobes, rather than attention-seeking stuff they can only wear on special occasions.
What was the inspiration? In terms of product offering it feels like one of your broadest collections for a while.
As I’ve been in my room at the Covent Garden office for a year now, more or less, I’ve not been to galleries or been able to travel to get inspiration, so I looked internally instead. Last year, at the 50th anniversary, so many people were asking me what my key moments of design over the years had been – how did I design to the grunge period or the mod period – and that made me think, “Well, it’s all in my head!”, so we took inspiration from Britain’s subcultures as a starting point.
Can you talk us through some of the key looks in the collection?
I’ve purposely not tried to reference said subcultures too literally. There’s a Harrington jacket at look number 15. It’s the style of jacket that the mods used to wear – in fact, it was originally a preppy jacket that people used to wear to play golf.
Then there’s a reference to the skinheads in a couple of outfits. Look one, for instance, and look number 28. They both feature the classic turned-up jeans – that big turn up with the heavy boots or loafers is great.
Look number five is focused more on the period when we were all wearing army clothes, so you’ve got a classic MA-1 flight jacket but it’s made from a ripstop fabric, which is also reversible. There’s this very delicate pattern on the one side and then there’s a more boyish fabric on the other side. It’s tough and smooth in the same jacket.
Look number 24 is also great. The guy with the double-breasted coat and the bag and the bright coloured hat. It’s kind of inspired by an old Portobello Road Aquascutum-type British trench coat, but cut in cashmere and wool, so it’s an overcoat rather than just a raincoat. Underneath that is a worker jacket made from really fine Loro Piana wool. So you’ve got tailoring, it’s just made in alternative styles. When we eventually do get back into tailored garments I think we’ll enjoy wearing a worker jacket in posh fabric perhaps more than we will traditional suits.
Although, of course, we do have traditional suits in the collection too, such as look number eleven, which is a recycled wool check suit worn with a mohair punk sweater beneath it. It’s a mod suit, four button and very slim. In terms of shapes in this collection you’ve either got quite slim or oversized and, colour-wise, there are a lot of dusty colours: dusty pink, dusty mauve, dark green.
The pièce de résistance, of course, is the reworking of the old-fashioned donkey jacket at look number 29, done in a very high-quality fabric.
It’s amazing that you’ve been able to get such a comprehensive collection together under such challenging circumstances. How have you done it?
As an independent British company – and I mean that, we are independent, as opposed to us having the backing of one of the big conglomerates – the fact we’ve put on a show and we’ve got an entire collection, it’s a real hats off to my team. They’ve done a miracle job. A real miracle. A lot of the brands haven’t been able to get anything together, they’re still working from sketches, they have tiny collections, if anything – so well done to us!
Many of the other big brands who’ve been showing over the past few weeks have really leaned into comfort and working from home wear, but you don’t seem to have done that. Why?
I’ve intentionally not done that. It’s such an obvious thing. Due to lockdown, everyone’s doing sportswear, sportswear, sportswear – you know, hoodies, jogging bottoms, trainers, Birkenstocks… If you look at our e-commerce site now, which is around 45 per cent up on what it was last year, it’s nearly all casual clothing that’s selling, so I don’t need to show that. I need to show things that excite people, things that aren’t crazy and that you could easily add to your existing wardrobe, but aren’t just a hoodie or whatever.
How are you navigating this time? Are the Covid-19 restrictions still drastically impacting your business?
It’s an enormously challenging time. Business is really tough because nearly all of our shops are closed in Europe and then we’re also on restricted hours in some countries. Any company that says they’re not haemorrhaging money right now is not being truthful. Everyone’s going through complicated times, but, luckily, so far so good. We’re so full of positive spirits. I’ve got such a good young team around me – they have so much energy.
And Brexit? We spoke about the impacts a little before the new year, but what’s the situation now?
Brexit is proving to be a bit of an enigma – there are a lot of hidden things we weren’t told honestly about. On Christmas Eve the government was saying “There’ll be no tariffs!”, which was kind of true but also not true at all because it’s entirely dependent on a wide variety of things. If you’re selling to Korea or Turkey, or South Africa or Switzerland, the tariffs are there and, you know, it’s very complicated.
If a piece of knitwear is made in Italy they need to know where the yarn is from – South America or China – it’s so complicated. The admin alone will cost us £5 million more – paperwork, logistics, advice, bonded warehouses, potentially moving parts of our business to other parts of the world. We just don’t know. It’s a complete unknown.
How do you manage to stay upbeat?
It’s incredible that we’ve got a wonderful show out. It’s not focused on a particular look like some of the other brands have. That’s intentional. Paul Smith is about clothes for people, it’s not clothes for a certain type of person or people with a certain amount of income. You know, we sell in 70 countries so I hope the show reflects that. I think it does, actually.
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