By  on October 21, 2009

Sir Paul Smith sat down with Simon Doonan for British-inflected, witty repartee at Barneys New York on Monday. The designer — famous for natty tailoring, whimsical patterns and colorful details — came to town to help promote the launch of an exclusive range of men’s suits, separates and shirts labeled, aptly, Paul Smith Exclusive, at Barneys’ flagships.

The line complements the designer’s runway collection and replaces the London Collection that Barneys carried previously. The Exclusive collection is priced 20 to 30 percent below runway.

“I’ve always had an affection for Barneys because they were very supportive in the early days,” said Smith, telling a story about showing shirts to Barneys’ Gene Pressman while the retailer did sit-ups at London’s Claridge’s Hotel. This year, “Barneys said it would be nice to have something exclusive, so we said, ‘Sure, why not?’ It’s a friendship thing.”

Smith told WWD that business overall is “quite good.” His privately held company wholesales in about 35 countries and has estimated sales of over $500 million.

“Worldwide it should be level on last year, which is remarkable in today’s world,” he said. He attributed the stability to “not overdistributing, not being too greedy, still being very much involved, the strong personalities of the brand and me. The shops all look very individual around the world, so they’re always worth visiting. Unfortunately so much of the industry is just overdistributed and so many of the shops look the same. We’re not like that,” he said.

But business never came up between the designer and Doonan as they attempted to address the question of British coolness in front of an audience on Barneys’ men’s third floor.

“You know, the Brits always think they’re so cool and groovy. Are they? I’m going to probe Sir Paul,” Doonan said, beginning an interview in which Smith awarded no style points to overfrequenters of British pubs or to nail-biting Prime Minister Gordon Brown, but reminisced fondly about style icons including Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and the renowned dandy, Neil “Bunny” Roger.

“Bunny Roger was fantastic. He had a different suit and a flower in his lapel every day. I bought all his clothes from his estate and I just did a collection based on them for Japan,” a key market Smith had visited just the day before, he said. “Being a dandy now is quite difficult because you have to be quite considered, and it takes time to do all that.”

Dandyism and hippie culture were both affected by the British class system, Smith said.

“I was brought up during the 1960s, when there was a lot of rebelliousness against the class system,” he said. “So you got a lot of upper-class guys who had to wear classical clothes, and suddenly they were making jackets out of their mother’s curtains, or velvet trousers. What was so interesting was they were making the things on Savile Row still, so they were beautifully made but rebellious.”



British lads also embraced Western wear and jeanswear from the U.S., he said. “I used to come here and buy bags of Levi’s 501s and take them back to my little shop in Nottingham, because you couldn’t get them at all there.”

“What is the uncoolest thing you’ve ever worn? Did you ever wear a glam-rock jumpsuit with camel toe? Come on, admit it,” Doonan deadpanned.

“During my Jimi Hendrix era, I probably wore 18 chiffon scarves at the same time. But I do remember designing something I really regretted, which was an emerald green raincoat with dinosaurs printed on it, for some reason,” replied Smith.

Typically, his quirky patterns can be found in linings. A medal-ribbon motif, which Doonan had on, is a favorite, and the Union Jack is the most popular, Smith said. His signature multistripe originated with a seasonal collection, but continued to be requested until it became a fixture. He first wanted it to have 28 colors, but settled on 14 to control costs.

Smith, a former professional bicyclist, reminded the audience that he had no formal design training.

“My wife was my teacher. She studied at the Royal College of Art in the 1960s, when they were still teaching couture,” Smith said. It was his wife Pauline (at the time, his girlfriend,) who prodded him to open a small shop, then to launch a small collection. The longtime couple finally married in 2000, on the same day Smith received his knighthood, a recognition of his tremendous success.

“The Queen said, ‘Well, haven’t you done well.’ I said, ‘Yeah, do you want to buy a shirt?’”

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