Sir Paul Smith is the godfather of British fashion. He is a multi-milionaire clothing impresario and an honorary member of rock aristocracy (Eric Clapton and David Bowie are friends of his). Knighted in 2000, he occupies a place in British fashion like no other. We ask whether the iconic designer has become our best art patron.
Smith was born in Nottingham in 1947, part of the post-war generation in a working class Midlands community. He dreamt of becoming a professional cyclist, but a bad accident made it impossible. Emerging from hospital six months later, he explains “that’s when I discovered the English pub”. Fortunately for him, his local was frequented by art school students – inspiring fashion designers, artists, photographers and architects – who introduced him to a new creative world.
At 18, Smith discovered London and the Swinging Sixties. He also met Pauline Denyer, an artist who would later become his wife, and a driving force behind his fashion business. With her help he managed to open his first shop, in Byard Lane, London. By 1976, he was showing his first menswear collection in Paris, under the Paul Smith label. His suits and patterned fabrics have gone on to revolutionise British tailoring.
Paul Smith’s early encounters with artists were clearly instrumental in directing and building his fashion career. From an early age he became an avid art collector, investing in the creative output of his friends. He has described his art collection, which he has accumulated since his early twenties, as a major source of inspiration which has contributed to his success as an international designer.
Paul Smith’s impressive collection, which represents his eye for art and his tireless creative philosophy, has been exhibited throughout the world, including at the Daelim Contemporary Art Museum in Korea and Art Gallery Artium in Fukuoka, Japan. The art historian Tim Marlow interviewed Paul Smith for Sky Arts 1 (‘Tim Marlow Meets Paul Smith’). The programme, filmed in Smith’s eccentric studio, explored the artworks that have inspired him in his 40-year career. Since 2008, Smith has written a fashion blog for Vogue.co.uk and for Vogue’s anniversary he shared his favourite pieces from his extensive art collection.
Over the years, Smith has purchased paintings, photographs and prints. The first serious art Smith bought was a print by David Hockney, “which I bought instead of paying the gas bill”. He has since got to know Hockney and remains a fan of his art. He loves Hockney’s work from the early Sixties and Seventies, and has a few of his prints, including ‘Alimentation’.
One of the influential pieces Smith identified was the iconic ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, by the godfather of British pop Sir Peter Blake. He owns a print of the famous Beatle’s album cover and told Vogue, “What can you say about the famous piece of artwork? SO creative and such an innovative idea for its time!” Besides Blake, Smith believes that Marc Quinn is “one of Britain’s leading living artists”. He owns a piece from Quinn’s fantastic series of images of flowers in vibrant colours, “the way he has made the work gives them an almost surreal look about them.”
Smith's collection also includes enviable examples of graffiti and urban art. One of Paul Smith’s favourite works is ‘Peace Dove’ by Shepard Fairey. He told Vogue, “I was a fan of his work when he was solely a graffiti artist, especially his campaign with Andre the Giant, a professional wrestler.”Another graffiti artist whose work he has admired for many years is Brooklyn based Phil Frost. He enjoys his exploration of various materials; paint, cut-out, sometimes feather.
To encourage new artistic talent, Smith has created a Paul Smith Scholarship at the Slade and Royal Academy Schools. James Lloyd was one of the first students he ever sponsored. The talented painter went on to win the BP Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery and coincidentally was commissioned to paint Paul Smith’s portrait for the gallery. Smith has purchased lots of his work and ‘Feather Duster’ is his particular favourite, “you almost feel like you can pick your duster up from the frame. His realistic but abstract style really appeals to me.”
Smith is a friend and keen supporter of the talented paper artist Rob Ryan, who’s delicate “papercuts and screenprints are so special”. In 2006, Smith had an exhibition of Ryan’s delicate cut out creations at his women’s shop on Sloane Avenue in London. In 2009, he was a guest at the opening of Ryan’s acclaimed exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Smith explains, “The first time I went to Rob’s studio I was so impressed that all his work is by hand – cutting out those fantastic intricate scene and designs with a fine knife requires so much patience and skill. His sensitive and romantic approach to his work is touching and impressive.”
Perhaps the most mutually inspiring relationship with an artist Smith has is with Charming Baker, the painter with whom he has collaborated on both artistic and fashion projects. Smith has not only bought a number of paintings by Charming Baker, but has also installed the young British painter as the global ambassador of the Paul Smith London line. Smith says the choice was, in part, because of Baker’s “charismatic nature and good looks.” This short film shows Smith himself photographing Baker for his Paul Smith London brand...
Sir Paul Smith once described himself as “the mythical man who has everything.” He has certainly built an enviable art collection, bursting with artrepublic favourites. He has invested in the British greats, such as Peter Blake and David Hockney, as well as discovering and nurturing new talent. The art he champions is diverse, varied, and exciting, from American street art, to romantic paper cut outs. It is clear that his collection has been an investment in inspiration; his infectious curiosity pushing the boundaries of art and design. The modest Sir Paul Smith may well be quietly becoming Britain’s most important art patron.