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THE ART OF LOOKING
By Deyan Sudjic
Photographs by Lee Funnell
Published March 2001

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A tall man detaches himself from the pavement on the opposite side of the Via Manzoni and starts to run across the street, his arms and legs seemingly shooting out in all directions, waving as he dodges the trains.

He is wearing a three quarter length olive green coat, in a style and colour that suggests the sort of thing that the People’s Liberation Army used to wear before they turned to westernised peaked caps, and dress uniforms. But this particular version of a military field jacket has been put together with an attention to cut and fit that not even the Great Helmsman himself would have merited. And it covers a suit in a fine tweed that don’t quite reflect the cascade of hair over the collar.

This is Paul Smith, probably the most successful fashion designer that Britain has ever produced. Last month he became the first designer from anywhere to turn down the open chequebooks of the voraciously hungry omnivorous conglomerates that are currently stalking the world like Godzilla swallowing every designer brand they can get their claws on.

Yes it might have meant adding the creative leadership of Dior to his existing responsibilities; and it would certainly have meant a great deal of cash. But it would have involved becoming part of the fashion sausage machine. The machine that in its increasingly frantic attempts to attract attention to its products is resorting to the most blatant, sexually explicit imagery in its advertising, at the same time that the clothes themselves, and the surroundings in which they are sold are increasingly formulaic. It’s a machine that one day will surely destroy itself. The more it succeeds now the more the next generation will one day ridicule the stylistic foibles of its parents as hopelessly old fashioned.

Smith is in any case allergic to formulas. You can find his stores in Tokyo, and Paris, New York and London; and from February, in Milan, but none of them look the same. And on this particular January morning, he is certainly not behaving the way that successful fashion designers are meant to behave. There is no entourage, and no limousine, and no demands for picture approval, cover approval, and interviewer approval. Just Smith, on the pavement, leading the way into the courtyard that opens off the Via Manzoni and through the back door of what is his not quite finished new shop. But then Smith has built a career by not behaving the way that successful fashion designers are meant to behave. He walks us into a tall, double height space in which large numbers of people are working. One team is carefully fitting sheets of heavy glass into the metal frames that will support them. Others are purposefully putting the finishing touches to the polished pink plaster walls.

This is, says Sophie Hicks, the architect responsible, not intended to be a tasteful shade of pink. “It’s a vulgar pink, what else can you do when you have to deal with a shop which is full of different surfaces and walls; full of openings that the landlord insists that you can’t touch. It is however, a beautifully finished vulgar pink”. Smith has been through the last minute rush to get a new shop open on time before; but he still has all the enthusiasm that he has ever had for the process. “Come and look at this” he says taking your arm and, with the air of a magician discovering a goldfish behind your ear, he points out the loving way that the original terrazzo floor has been patched with little mosaic inlays. The technique is beautiful, but the effect is deliberately designed to subvert the conventional idea of high gloss perfection. In much the same way that you can find intricate decorative embroidery spreading over the formally tailored suits that he designs, or the hand stitches that frame the collars of his wool shirts.

There is the same mixture of the precious with the crude in the choice of furnishings. At the back of the store is a huge oil soaked and battered work bench that Smith found on one of his journeys around Italy. He rescued it from the industrial shed in which it had lain undisturbed for so long and installed it exactly as it was. It’s so big, that it is hard to imagine how anybody could have got it onto a truck. At one end Hicks has built a sparsely detailed elegant glass bridge. But for most of its length the bench is left exposed, and it is not exactly beautiful. The top is stained and worn, in brutal contrast to the soft cashmere and fine silk that Smith drapes across it. The structure, clearly knocked up by some casual jobbing carpenter is makeshift, and yet sitting here in this environment, it has a powerful sculptural presence. It’s almost a Baselitz. It is also the last thing that you would expect to find in the city with the most exquisite, the most refined showcases for fashion in the world. Which for Smith is the whole point. Elsewhere, in the elegantly made glass display cases that pay tribute to the jewel-like precision of Carlo Scarpa, Smith takes the opposite tack. Rather than put beautiful things on a crude bench, he has filled the immaculately finished display cases with the pick of the toy shops of Japan. There’s a flock of plastic lobsters corralled inside one, a school of bright orange fish in another. One wall has a model train set taking pride of place.

On the floor is toy dog, a life size papier mâché Airedale on wheels. As you come in from the street you run the gauntlet of a wall of stuffed shirts pinned to the wall rising 20 feet up. Over it all is a light box ceiling, apparently uniform, but in fact subtly tuned to light each area in the most appropriate way. Twenty years ago when Smith opened his first London store Peter Wigglesworth designed a raw concrete box for him, a decade ahead of its time. Even earlier when he first opened for business in his home town of Nottingham, he designed it entirely by himself. But then it was just one tiny room, up an alley. Later Smith started up in Japan, creating shops planned around ancient timber shop fittings salvaged from old-fashioned drapers stores from provincial England.
Every time it has been different. Every time Smith has been passionate, curious, constantly using his highly tuned visual sense to get things right, or ever so slightly, wrong. Not that he gets bored, it’s that he is frightened of being boring, of getting stuck to a safe, complacent formula.

Its the very opposite of the fashion world ennui. It’s based on constant curiosity, and also that sense of always looking, and finding visual excitement in even the most banal objects, as well as the more conventionally beautiful ones too. Smith was selling Filofaxes, Braun calculators and Swiss Army penknives and hard to find Japanese cameras alongside his clothes 5 years before the rest of the fashion conscious world knew what they were, and had dropped them again before they caught up. Looking is what Smith is really about. Fashion was an accident for him, quite literally so.
His first passions were cycling, and photography; but a bad crash put him out action for months, and since he could not become a professional cyclist as he had hoped, he had to do something else. That something else turned out to be clothes. He met his future wife, Pauline who was teaching at the local art school. She encouraged him to start to look at design magazines, to get interested in contemporary art, and architecture. And to look at things. The photography however, has never stopped. In the early days Smith only did clothes for men. They were distinguished by a surreal wit, and a wilful determination to twist and subvert the familiar rules of fashion, mixing inappropriate colours and patterns, playing with the details of buttons. Smith puts red socks with a dark suit. He turns a photograph of a seed packet into a printed fabric for a shirt. He makes a beautiful light wool suit and puts a lining inside that has a street map of Paris, like some long forgotten memory of the way that the American air force used to sew maps into the flight jackets of its pilots. He collects wax sushi, and second hand magazines, old books and art, that sprawl over his cramped offices in London. Because he is always looking, he doesn’t design on a drawing board, but in his note book, which he fills with lists and thoughts everywhere he goes, and with his hands, buying cloth at Biella, meeting fabric printers, and making quick decisions about colour ways and options.

But if Smith is a restless, endlessly energetic presence, his company is also a highly organised one. Unlike the promising hopefuls in Britain who show a couple of enormously publicised collections, and then go bankrupt when they can’t meet delivery deadlines, or don’t understand the intricacies of stock control, or else end up in the hands of the fashion sausage machine, Smith’s business is organised, efficient, and still privately owned. It has moved beyond the original men clothes. Despite his initial caution not to expand for the sake of it, and his care not to loose the original identity of his clothes that made them so distinctive, Smith now designs for both men and women. There is a children’s range, perfume, cosmetics, wristwatches, shoes, socks and underwear as well as a Jeans line. You can see his touch in the subtle packaging for his perfume, in the way that he splits his signature in the shoes he designs ó Paul in one, Smith in the other ó in the new jeans range using traditional denim made on machines salvaged from the United States.

It’s not a case of endless brand extension as it is known, rather the result of a sense of gradually coming to make the most of the possibilities that have come Smith’s way.

He goes on trying to surprise and amuse his audience. And using his eyes to make fashion that is personal, rather than a formula.

© Domus 2001