Paul Smith: Gentleman Designer (2011) is, much like the clothing offered up by this iconic British label, a bit on the flashy side. This 55-minute TV documentary by Stéphane Carroll – which follows Smith himself as he goes about the everyday business as head of his trendy design house – is over before you know it, giving the viewer little or no time to discover what really makes the man tick. Yet Smith’s secret is in the detail, a point made by a number of his customers at the opening of the film. Smith himself emphasises this when he explains that this was one of his earliest design innovations, the inspiration for which came through necessity.
Divided into three distinct parts, the film chronicles the designer’s work life, from team brainstorming at his London headquarters, to casting the models for his latest collection in Paris and visiting the company’s newest flagship store in Tokyo. The film is most interesting when it shows Smith and his designers during the originating a new collection (in this case for the Winter 2011 season), or when it follows him as he mooches round the clothing markets of Portobello Road on a Friday morning picking up various vintage pieces for inspiration.
In The September Issue (2009), R. J. Cutler’s much more insightful look at the fashion business, Grace Coddington, the flame-haired Creative Director of American Vogue, says that she always keeps her eyes open gathering inspiration from whatever she sees around her. Smith claims the same. However as anyone with even the slight interest in fashion can tell you there is very little original in the world of clothing design, with much of what you see on the designer catwalks gleaned and picked up from history – a tactic Smith subtly, yet clearly uses to his own lucrative ends.
At one point in Gentleman Designer, American Vogue’s Hamish Bowles likens Smith’s intrinsic Britishness to Ralph Lauren, another historical style magpie, and his influence on American culture. Which emphasises, as this ultimately disappointing film does, that there really is nothing new under the sun, particularly in the world of high fashion.