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A love letter to Paul Smith on the British style icon's 70th birthday

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Former footballer David Preece salutes his sartorial hero on the landmark day

When I was 10 years old I took a picture with me to my mother’s hairdressers, telling them, “This is how I want want my hair". I’d snipped the picture out of a copy of the News of the World the previous Sunday and it was of a guy with long, shoulder-length, curly hair.

This caused somewhat of a problem, because even though my hair is curly, back then I was sporting a traditional short back and sides with about an inch of hair on top. I wasn’t sure what kind of miracle I was expecting them to perform but eyes were rolled and they grabbed a handful of cheap wet-look gel, scrunched it in to my feeble locks and sent me on my way.

I didn’t know at the time that the picture I’d showed them was of Michael Hutchence and what this little anecdote shows is the precise time in my life when I began caring about what I looked like and how I dressed. Up to that point, the biggest fashion statement I’d made up to then was the silver/grey goalkeeper’s strip worn by Peter Shilton at Mexico ’86. I was taken with the INXS frontman’s look but the man I really wanted to dress like was my dad.

I’d go and watch him on a Saturday afternoon playing in goal for his local football team, which meant there was no decision for me to make in that respect. He was a goalkeeper, so that’s what I was going to be and that’s what I eventually became. But as much as his sporting influence hung over me, I loved the way my dad dressed.

Over the last 30 years, playing football as a kid and later as a career, I’ve spent much of my time in tracksuits and sportswear and detested every second of doing so. A life in football means half a life of travelling and yes, tracksuits are more comfortable to travel in, but they just never seemed to be me.

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My dad’s job called for a different attire. He has always managed bars, pubs and clubs, and throughout it all I have never seen him at work without his “uniform”: a suit, a shirt and a tie. His look was slightly overstated at times, but when I saw him dressed like that, I felt that it gave him an air of authority - and I wanted to be looked at the same. I was never one of the kids who had cool trainers at school but that never bothered me, I’d rather have had a nice pair of shoes to wear that made me look smart.

When it came to my first forays into town with my mates when we we were 16, I’d take my dad’s Prince of Wales checked suit and smuggle it out of the house to change into so I looked older. The look I achieved was more Coco the Clown than Roxy Music, drowning in the cloth of the suit. Still, I thought I looked a million dollars and dreamed of the day I could buy my own - though I didn’t want to just buy one for the sake of it. The process would be sacred.

I wore a shirt and tie as often as I could, without care of the risk people would think I was off to a wedding and overdressed for a simple night out. The fact I couldn’t yet afford to buy myself the kind of suit I wanted was killing me.

The day I could finally do it came in 1999. I was just shy of my 23rd birthday and had recently moved from Darlington to Aberdeen. Professionally, the move was exactly the step up I wanted but I there was another sartorial step for me to take. Those four weeks to my pay day were torture. I spent my spare time wandering the streets of Aberdeen, searching out the best cup of coffee it had to offer and meandering in and out of the same two men's retailers looking for a suit. I could never bring myself to try suits on because I knew I couldn’t afford them. I’d settle just for rubbing the fabric, holding the jackets up to the light to give the impression I was some sort of connoisseur.

I’d been in the same store half a dozen times but nothing had caught my eye until I was told, “This one has just come in”. In short, it was the one, love at first sight. It was a chocolate brown, three buttoned suit by Paul Smith - my first introduction to tailored, fitted clothes - and it felt like the first thing I’d ever worn that fit perfectly.

Given the choice, I always thought it was better to be over-dressed than under-dressed and this suit made me realise how I wanted to dress. I wanted to be smart, but Paul Smith was more than that. The tiny detail of the purple stitching on just one of the four button holes on the left cuff and the purple piping on the inside pockets were subtle but significant dashes of flair. Not too much, just enough.

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There was an element of peacocking to it but I didn’t want to be seen as garish. That just wasn’t me. It was my quiet rebellion against what everyone thought a footballer was. I didn’t want to be a stereotype. I wanted to look like my dad and this suit made me feel like I’d finally grown up. 

The biggest compliment I could pay to that suit and the man whose name adorns the label is that 17 years later it still looks just as good today (you can see me donning it above). I was at Simonstone Hall in the Yorkshire Dales, celebrating the 50th birthday of James Brown - the founder of Loaded Magazine, and owner of Sabotage Times - wearing that same suit.

That suit has been a part of my life and fact I’m writing this now is proof of the impact it had on me, and that suit has been responsible for my love of Paul Smith and his designs. It didn’t just speak to me, it was me. Whenever I wore that suit or anything else by Paul Smith I felt that that was how I was supposed to look. 

I have a pair of 12-year-old Paul Smith brogues that are bomb-proof and they’ve aged like a Hollywood actor, like a David Niven: slightly wrinkled but never worse for wear, somehow looking better with each year, and that’s their beauty.

Paul Smith isn’t trendy or ‘fashionable’, thank God; it’s stylish, it’s classic, it’s timeless. And who wouldn’t want to be that?

Happy Birthday, Sir Paul Smith.

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