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Paul Smith

How a would-be competitive cyclist became one of the most famous—and famously irreverent—English designers in the world.

Paul Smith may be one of the preeminent names in British fashion now, but he didn’t come upon his chosen profession with the singularity of purpose that you might expect, given his success. In fact, he fell into it—literally (well, sort of). Born and raised in Nottingham, Smith left school at 15 and was pushed into a job at a clothing warehouse by his father at 16, but his real interest lay in the world of competitive cycling. That is, until a fateful ride—and a pair of overly dark, too-narrow sunglasses—found him running full-bore into the back of a car.

The collision threw him from the bike, and, eventually, into the world of fashion. The three months he spent recuperating in the hospital brought Smith into contact with a few new friends, and after he healed, he agreed to meet them in a pub frequented by students of the local art college. Enamored of the creative scene, he rededicated himself to his work at the warehouse, making displays in the showroom that convinced his boss to let Smith take over the menswear buying duties at 17. Two years later, he was managing a boutique, and not long after, with the encouragement of his girlfriend (and now wife) Pauline, he opened his own shop.

The man himself

In the evenings, Smith took classes for tailoring, and with a bit of help from Pauline (herself a graduate of the fashion program at the Royal College of Art) he began designing his own clothes and producing them through local manufacturers. In 1976, he set up shop in London, and showed his first collection in Paris, steeped in British menswear tradition, and inspired by everything from the workaday uniforms of postal workers to country tweeds and bright, bespoke suiting. It’s exactly the sort of winking cultural mashup that informed the design and product mix in his stores—think notebooks and penknives displayed alongside Japanese gadgets and his own clothes—and it remains the label’s defining ethos to this day, even as it’s expanded to include a multitude of lines, from the tailored main collection to the casual PS by Paul Smith to the denim-centric Paul Smith Jeans. Blending elements both high and low, but always distinctly English (and still produced primarily in England), Paul Smith’s irreverently executed clothing epitomized “classic with a twist” before it became cliché. Thankfully, though the phrase has seen better days, Sir Paul’s designs—oh, did we mention he’s been knighted?—look just as fresh now as they ever did.

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