As he learned to sell clothes, Smith also took evening classes to study how to make them. A military man taught him to tailor, imparting the secrets of ceremonial dress (“It’s all about important, elegant, fine posture”). Some of this upstanding aesthetic is evident in his signature cut today—though he firmly believes that the art of fit lies in the eye of the beholder, and he points to designer Thom Browne, with his love-’em-or-loathe-’em “shrunken” silhouettes, as proof of this philosophy. Smith’s menswear business became a thundering success.
Then there’s the elusive women’s business. Smith introduced a women’s line “by demand” in 1993 and, though solid, it didn’t have nearly the impact of his menswear. “There are something like ten or fifteen times as many women’s companies as there are men’s, so it’s a huge competition,” he says. “A lot of it these days is not about the clothes, it’s about the advertising power, the power you have to open shops. It’s a lot more to do with buying into the world that surrounds the label or the designer, which is unfortunately often extraordinarily false.” The glammy brouhaha surrounding women’s fashion (“the image, the girl, the makeup, the shoes”) isn’t particularly his cup of tea. “I don’t have a strong feminine side, which I think is a disadvantage,” he says. Still, he plays to his strengths, concentrating on witty tailoring, shirts, raincoats, and knitwear, while relying on the assistance of womenswear design director Sandra Hill for more feminine pieces. Certainly, Smith gives the impression that he would much prefer to hobnob with people like Eboy—the German collective of digital “pixel artists,” whose work he recently featured on his clothes and accessories—than aggressively pursue cash and cachet in the women’s sector.
Smith laments the decline of the peacock male in the modern world and bemoans the decline of flamboyant youth tribes, from mods to hippies to the crazy-colored British goths, that have kept menswear interesting over the decades. “I love all that because it’s self-expression through nonviolent means, not wanting to look like your elder brother or your mum and dad, just saying, ‘I am me,’ ” he says. In his view, clothing—in fact, just about everything—should be leavened with humor, and the world takes itself too seriously too often. “People grow up so quickly now. In a way, they miss a lot of fun.”