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Elegant

1 GRACEFUL AND ATTRACTIVE IN APPEARANCE OR BEHAVIOUR.

2 AN ELEGANT IDEA, PLAN, OR SOLUTION IS CLEVER BUT SIMPLE, AND THEREFORE ATTRACTIVE.

Hi paul, thank you for taking the time today, I know how busy you are - The reason I asked for this conversation is because I need your thoughts on something that has been challenging me and I thought you were the best person to talk to about it. At CHPT3 we're beginning a new chapter, as you well know, you've so kindly let my team use your HQ in Covent Garden for some of the design and development work of the new collections during this crazy covid world when we've had nowhere else to go.

We're not only creating new products we are also refining the brand itself applying everything we've learned these past six year. Two words have started being used repeatedly to help make decisions about everything we do: elegant and playful. Of course, I realise that's very much how you've always been, personally and with your brand, so I wanted to talk about how you've always kept that balance, because the two words create quite a tension between each other. I think playfulness people can understand, yet elegance is harder to define as it can mean so many different things. So...

Paul, how do you define the word elegant?

There are three words I’m often asked about in interviews, what is your favourite? I find that very difficult, it very much depends on your mood and the situation you’re in and how you’re feeling. I’m asked about style, what is stylishness? That’s another very difficult one. And then there’s elegance, what is elegant? Elegance is a real tough one.

You can be elegant in a very formal way, in the right clothes that are well proportioned and very coordinated – but then you can also behave in a very elegant manner in clothes that are a lot more casual. There’s a danger when talking about elegance of being seen as old fashioned or out of touch, not cool. But it’s quite the opposite, you can have good manners, you can open a door, you say please and thank you, you can ask and not tell, you can be interested and interesting, you can know when to talk and know when to listen. That’s not being uncool, that’s not being out of touch, that’s not being old-fashioned, it’s just being a decent human being to another human being.

Unfortunately, the world now is run by people who can’t bear not to be in power, and it’s never been more important for the public to respect each other and respect the planet and climate change and the appalling problems we have with rubbish and litter around the world. That’s not about elegance, it’s about being a person who is caring and is interested in a future for their children.

That’s so true, the general opinion of elegance is that it’s about being graceful, it’s attractive, it’s about appearance, and they skip over the behaviour. In fact, elegance is about how you carry yourself.

It’s just a matter of respecting other people on the earth, whatever colour or status they are. Everybody is so self-conscious now, and of course one of the worries is that we’re all so politically correct that it’s stifling spontaneity, we must really think before we speak, which in many ways is wonderful yet in many others it’s disappointing because you can’t always be yourself. You can see from this conversation that elegance is far from what it’s literal definition would have you think. It’s so much more.

Who have you found as an inspiration for elegance in your life?

Well, I think my wife, Pauline, is quite interesting. I’m not sure if she’s elegant or not, I don’t know – but there is a standard which she’s set in her head for everything we do. We always have real fabric napkins at the table, we always drink wine out of a glass that when you flick your finger on it has a ring that continues, we have knives and forks that have weight to them, so when you hold them in your hand the handle has weight to it. All those things can be bought from a street market or a vintage shop, they don’t have to be expensive, it’s just a way to think about things. Even if Pauline goes to the local shop she looks elegant. It doesn’t equal money; it equals a way to think about things.

We both come from non-cycling backgrounds yet we both fell in love with it. I think we found elegance in it, yet oddly it is a word that doesn’t seem to be part of the lexicon – there’s style, form, panache, yet I can’t think of a professional cyclist who has been repeatedly described as elegant.

I used to take my bike to my bedroom at night just so I could look at it, everything about it was so beautiful, I’d run my nail down the seat pillar, feeling how it had been turned on the lathe, the centre pull Mavic brakes that were so beautiful. Then there was that thing about learning how you sat on a bike and how you looked on a bike, and how if your heel is on the pedal in a certain way then that was the correct length from the pedal to the top of the seat. There were all these methods and rules.

Is elegance finding your own style within the rules? There is always an admiration when you see somebody who doesn’t break the rules but finds their own style within them. I remember my book launch that you hosted, a decade ago now, we were about to have our picture taken together and I started to tuck my shirt in, and you told me not to. I was wearing a mixed-up suit and trainers, all Paul Smith obviously, and you said that was my look and I should wear it, and then you tidied me up as if prepping one of your models behind the curtain of a fashion show. I realised then that you saw things differently. It was later I read the quote of you saying you don’t do fashion, you do individuality.

Daniel Day Lewis, who is a mate of mine, he has bespoke suits made by our bespoke house in Westbourne House in Notting Hill. He has English tweed suits made from there, nobody has tweed suits made anymore. He rides a yellow Triumph motorbike, brand new one, so he wears motorbike boots with a bespoke tweed suit, a denim shirt which is probably very old, 30yrs old, and he’s the only man in the entire world who I’ve ever seen wearing a necklace that doesn’t look stupid, and it’s not really a necklace, it’s beaded. That’s the coming together of his personal character. He’s interesting, stylish, elegant all at once.

I used to take my bike to my bedroom at night just so I could look at it, everything about it was so beautiful, I’d run my nail down the seat pillar, feeling how it had been turned on the lathe, the centre pull Mavic brakes that were so beautiful. Then there was that thing about learning how you sat on a bike and how you looked on a bike, and how if your heel is on the pedal in a certain way then that was the correct length from the pedal to the top of the seat. There were all these methods and rules.

Do you think, perhaps this is it, do you think that being elegant is about caring?

Yes, I mean what you hope with your company is that you are going to create clothes and products that will become part of your family, part of your things that will last for a long time, that will grow with you. So I mean normally the only thing that you could describe that’s like is an old pair of jeans that just get better with age, suede or a leather coat that just get better with age, a denim shirt that just gets better with age, or a very beautiful brief case or suitcase in leather that just gets better, then of course a very traditional big rivet Brooks saddle from the 70s which I’ve got in front of me where I’m sitting right now on my old Harry Hall bike.

It’s the idea of “buy less buy better” which over the last 30 years as the world has changed people have forgotten, and I think it’s coming back.

What’s interesting about that statement though, David, is the fact that Greta Thunberg and all her disciples, and I don’t mean that disrespectfully, are now standing up and saying that clothes aren’t to be thrown away after just one use. That thinking is getting very out of fashion. So having clothes that you can buy that have longevity, thatnyou can take care of, we must get back to that. You know back in the 80s when I went to Japan I used to buy a lot of their old working clothes from the rice fields and they were natural indigo dye because indigo repels mosquitos when they’re standing in the rice fields in the water, but then the reason I used to buy these old clothes was because they were covered in what is called Sashiko stitching, which we in England call darning, so basically if a garment got a hole in it on the cuff, or on the elbow or knee, which is normally where they wore out, or down the centre front they would literally darn it.

I used to love that, and I did a lot of my denim collection using Sashiko stitching with repairs. But you know the thing about clothes today you just want them to be able to last and patch them up and keep them going and pass them on. Elegance is how you bring your own way of living to life, it is not just about how you look, it is about you feel and share yourself.

Elegance is about gentle self-confidence, taking a breath before you do things ... setting a standard and keeping to it.

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