‘There is obviously the look – Malgosia has the type of striking beauty that I love, and looks great in my clothes – but really, the key thing for me is her personality, which she manages to project so well,’ says Sir Paul Smith when asked why he chose 40-year-old model Malgosia Bela as the face of his new womenswear collection. ‘Unfortunately, today we live in a world where so much is false and in the case of fashion, pretentious, where we are constantly being told what we should and shouldn’t wear and how we should behave, that it is so refreshing when you meet someone like Malgosia who is happy to just be herself, and is completely relaxed. She’s actually lying down on a couch at the moment!’
For her part, Bela seems to have found something of a soulmate in Smith. ‘Oh my God – you know we are born one day apart; he’s the 5th July and I’m the 6th! I only found this out after we’d shot the campaign and then it made so much sense. But seriously, what makes the Paul Smith collections so unique is that they are designed to show personality and not to give in to all these trends that we are being dictated to wear. It’s scary how much we are encouraged to follow everyone else.’
When a woman becomes herself, she knows who she is and she can own it
As the conversation progresses, the theme of individuality recurs. Smith points out that Bela is ‘wearing a black Paul Smith smoking suit with a fluid cream shirt today – a trouser suit.’ A woman in a suit is a look he likes. ‘My entire career I have enjoyed engaging with people’s minds, with their ideas, and never really got hung up about masculine looks or feminine looks,’ he says. ‘For me it’s just about the character of somebody, and my personal love is tailoring. So I make it for men and women, and for that approach, I have to say, Malgosia is the perfect model.’
Bela cites David Bowie as a style icon of hers, but with the qualification that as a ‘dandy’, and ‘extrovert’ he was ‘completely the opposite of my more understated personal style’. Bela is keen to assert that people should be happy to be themselves when it comes to their wardrobe. ‘The thing I admire is when people own what they are wearing,’ she says. It doesn’t really matter what it is, it could be a pair of bikini bottoms with full make-up, whatever. It’s about the confidence you have in your interpretation of a look. That’s what David Bowie had.’ (Interestingly, Bowie was a customer of Paul Smith, and Smith made the T-shirt to promote the musician’s last album, Blackstar.)
Born in Kraków, Bela left Poland in the late 1990s at the age of 21. She had studied classical music, but instead of pursuing this, became a model after she was instantly successful on both the catwalk and in print. This led to acting, and her screen debut in Polish film Ono in 2004. Since then, she has combined the two. This year also sees her take up a role as editor-at-large for the recently launched edition of Polish Vogue.
But today, she is talking about what she wore in front of the camera for Smith. ‘Put it this way: we had a bunch of lobsters and a bow and arrow, and I was pulling a rope. Fashion really should not take itself so seriously. It was so nice to do such a refreshing shoot with Paul Smith.’
Smith’s style for women derives, he says, from his expertise in menswear. Trained at night school in Nottingham, where he studied military tailoring, he is a fan of jackets, trousers and suits for women, as much as dresses. Should every woman have a suit in her wardrobe?
‘I think so, why not? It’s interesting, though, because at the moment the whole world is doing sportswear, but I am sticking to my guns and showing nice tailoring – jackets, suits and overcoats. Of course, we have trainers and T-shirts and the like in the collection too – I’ve always mixed sportswear in with the more formal elements – but the backbone, if you like, is in the tailoring. For women, we naturally also do dresses and more conventionally ‘feminine’ styles, but I have a very clear idea that if you are dressing a woman, you don’t have to show lots of skin.’
Bela agrees: ‘Actually, I believe it’s more sexy the less you show.’
Smith talks about ‘respecting the female form’. He explains how he concentrates ‘on the cut, the proportions, the silhouette – around the rib cage, the waistline, the collar bone… the length of the leg’. Then referencing the German industrial designer Dieter Rams, who apparently talked of ‘how designing nothing is harder than designing something’, Smith explains the burden of expectation he feels. ‘We get lumbered with this label “designer” and it’s a problem because we can feel that we have to do ostentatious things, or obviously “fashionable” pieces. But we don’t. We can just do what we believe in, really well.’
It’s a variation on the theme of being true to yourself, and in Bela he has a willing advocate. Tailoring is, she says, a staple in her wardrobe, ‘You know, what makes a good suit is the shape, the silhouette, and it is designed so that it will make us look good – it can correct our shortcomings,’ she says.
Smith adds that what he is really talking about is tailoring’s versatility, ‘You don’t have to wear a suit as a suit. You can break it up. A good jacket will work with jeans, or over a satin dress, or with shorts.’
‘Absolutely,’ agrees Bela. ‘You know, I have suits, I wear suits, and it’s all about showcasing your personality. When you hit the magic number 40, age-wise, for a woman – for men, maybe it’s a bit later, maybe 50 – this is when who you are begins to show in your face. You cannot cheat it. When a woman becomes herself, she knows who she is and she can own it. I’m in that magical moment, and I enjoy every minute of it. And now I find I’m much more of a suit person than before. I’ve settled in. I’m more and more true to myself.’
Smith observes that he pretty much wears a suit every day. ‘I just find it works – I can dress it down or up, I can match it with a T-shirt or denim shirt or a more formal shirt, and with trainers or a pair of classic Oxfords. Also, I like to carry stuff – I like the fact that I have pockets in my jacket for my keys and notebooks.’ For Bela, ‘a good jacket is just one of those universal pieces. As is a great coat.’ And like Smith, she talks of how ‘you can dress tailoring up or down, and use your jacket as part of a suit, or just with jeans’.
But how much or how little you choose to wear depends, says Smith, entirely on your lifestyle. ‘If you work in a business that requires you to look more classic and smart, that’s what you should do. But you can always have that little surprise in your outfit that reminds you that you are an individual. So many of my clothes have a discreet surprise element – a coloured lining, a hidden detail or print – something that is known to the wearer. I do think that clothes should be fun. Maybe it’s a British thing.’
For Bela, who grew up in communist Poland, fashion initially seemed like an altogether different affair. ‘It was insane, not even fun at first. It was intimidating at first, then fun,’ she says. ‘Actually, I have a feeling I am having the most fun now than I’ve ever had in my life – with my family, my son. Now I think fashion should be fun. It’s there to make the world a better-looking place, it’s not a matter of life and death. Paradoxically, as I am getting old for being a model, I am enjoying myself so much more.’
You can see Malgosia Bela later this year in Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s cult classic 1977 horror picture Suspiria alongside Dakota Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz and Tilda Swinton