David Bowie Remembered by Paul Smith: A Lasting Friendship & Final Collaboration

Courtesy of Paul Smith
David Bowie and Paul Smith

Famed British menswear designer Paul Smith remembers his friend -- and loyal customer -- David Bowie, whom he worked with on a limited-edition T-shirt design that coincided with the release of "Blackstar."

I first met David in 1979 in my shop in London. My studio used to be above the store and I’d often receive calls from staffers who’d whisper things like, "Jack Nicholson is in the shop! Harrison Ford is here!" My reply was usually, "Oh, that’s lovely." But when they whispered, "David Bowie is here"? Well, I went downstairs. I was pretending to be nonchalant, of course, and we began chatting.

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One of the nicest things for me was that whenever David and I talked, it was just like you and me are talking right now -- it wasn’t the rock star talking to a fashion designer. We were both quite inquisitive and curious people, so the conversations would go from astrology to architecture to photography to anything. And that was a delight, really.

As you know, he was someone who reinvented himself -- so his stage wear and his music were very much part of a public persona. What was interesting to me, though, was his approach to his own personal style. As a designer, I’ve never really given things to people; I like people to wear my clothes because they enjoy them and not because they’ve been gifted them. And David would literally just come to the shop himself. No bodyguard, no stylist. He once came into the Fifth Avenue shop and bought every shirt in his size. It was mind-blowing. Thrilling.

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There is this one wonderful story about a friend of mine, whose 18-year-old son needed a suit. So he came into my shop in Covent Garden. The boy tried the suit on, came out of the changing room and looked into the big mirror we had. At the same time, the door to one of the other changing rooms opened and the guy who walked out was David Bowie. "Wow, you look great!" he said to the kid. "You look really great, man!" And this boy nearly passed out, he went pale white! Nearly fainted! [Laughs]

That was just David.

One night in the '90s, my wife and I had supper with him and Iman at a restaurant in St. James' [district]. When we left to get the cabs, there was a big staircase -- and as David walked down it, he started singing: "The party's over, it’s time to call it a day," to [my wife] Pauline and I. She reminded me of that moment this morning, and we were both in tears. David Bowie singing to us.

I saw many, many concerts of his in London. I was very much a part of the Hunky Dory era. "Ch-ch-changes" [sings] ... That one. Yes, that one has a way of staying in your head."

--As told to Brooke Mazurek

​(The limited-edition Paul Smith for David Bowie T-shirt is available in black and white options from paulsmith.co.uk.)