Of course, Paul Smith is a knight of the British Empire, a globally acclaimed design force who has accumulated decades of accolades. I simply scribble on the Internet. But what hit so close to home in this gaily eclectic volume, originally published in 2001, is its appreciation of the vast sensory possibilities out there in anything from Japanese toy robots to old cameras to trophy animal heads, to say nothing of clothes. I wonder if Smith has anything like Stendhal syndrome, that feeling of taking in so much, being so moved, by contemplation, that you pass out. There is inspiration everywhere, and simply trying to capture a fraction, to capture one tiny smallest increment of an instant, feels like my life’s work, if not my work’s work, before it overwhelms me. At the time I was finally realizing that, more than thirty years into my life, I discovered this book, a happy coincidence, and its random and motley assemblage of past and present, kitsch and elegant, intellectual and low, resonated with me.
More than 20 years ago, I learned about Smith and the simple design philosophy he repeats throughout his book: classic with a twist. Today, that may sound like the most worn-out cliché. A throng of tailor-designers played variations on that theme in the 1990s, a leitmotiv of dusting off old classics and making them relevant again. (They’ve been followed by the recent trend for the allegedly classic itself and the misconception of timeless style, now, rather sadly to me, on the ebb.) I suspect those 1990s Young Turks, Welshmen and Ghanaians would have been nowhere without Smith. Classic had become a matter of either perceived exhaustion, or appropriation in Ralph Lauren pastiche, a rich, inexhaustible mine. Smith embraced the innate kitsch of clothes and styles made for a disappearing world, that phantom British Empire. Rather than sell the actual old relics of Empire, as the 1960s’ Granny Takes a Trip (co-founded by Savile Row-trained tailor John Pearse) did, Smith could design new clothes repurposing the ethos of those remnants, rather than those old clothes themselves. Less chance of catching a disease, as was legendarily the case for a Swinging Londoner who purchased a Crimean War greatcoat still infected with impetigo. Not for nothing was Smith’s old London flagship in Covent Garden on Floral Street, a street that was “dead” at the time he moved in as the old market shops of an earlier London had all closed up. London the plutocrat’s Disneyland was not even a gleam in a New Labour eye.
A self-consciousness and awareness, a knowing and witty transgression, marked Paul Smith’s earlier clothes. That irreverence was engagingly levelling, democratic, fitting for a man universally recognized as down to earth, blokey, unprepossessing. He made totems for modern Britain acutely aware of what had gone before, designing a rainbow-striped Mini, or shoes (that used to be made in Northampton) on whose soles were carefully printed maps of London. He stood for knowing rules, construction, design and intentionally flouting them in minor ways. Innovation is essential for a designer to keep putting out seasonal collections, of course, but primed by all I had read and seen, I had to visit his well-worn, homey London shop on my first visit to England. A student, I was shocked by prices, too late realizing the premium some pay for concept…or name. I finally settled on a thick indigo selvedge denim buttondown shirt, my first piece of selvedge denim (the first time I had seen the word “selvedge,” in fact). I had to admit to myself I had bought it to have part of the totem, and gradually wore it less and less often, until it dwelt on the back of a closet shelf.
Reading this book, I was inspired to wear the shirt again. We, the customers and wearers, repurpose too. The shirt is dark enough to avoid Canadian tuxedo (Canadian dress shirt?) connotations, and now that there is a subtrend for denim shirts with bespoke tailoring, I should probably try wearing it with a suit one of these days like my more attractive #menswearblogger friends (you know who you are).
I kept the shirt for sentiment; I put off reading Paul Smith’s book out of fear of confronting the reality of inspiration. There really is in every moment, every possible tiniest impression, incalculable volumes of not data, but being, incapable of completely capturing, reflecting or recording, at least for human beings. Smith comes across in his book as an obsessive collector (about which, come to think of it, I better plead the Fifth), accumulating so many different tiny items that one person’s individual, slightly askew perspective, can build of them a world. Or his own True Brit Empire.
Almost all his profiles dub Smith “True Brit,” a man whose designs reflect a vision of a broad, modern, diverse Britain – not for nothing did postcolonial novelist Hanif Kureishi model for him at one point. Today, of course, you’re as likely to encounter cheaply made $100 Smith-branded graphic T-shirts at luxury retailers, but brand expansion forces concessions.
Seven years after coming to terms with my fears about writing again – my struggle between the need to expiate my inspiration and a fear of derision, if not failure, I overcame my fears about reading a book too close to my way of thinking. It’s a vivid, entertaining read, containing various interviews, monographs, flights of fancy, even a fold-out board game. I owed it to him to recognize this.