Meet The Man Giving This British Heritage Brand A 2019 Makeover

Smythson, the British brand famous for paper diaries and discreet bags, has been transformed by a new creative director fresh from Burberry

Smythson

by Laura Antonia Jordan |
Updated on

long before Steve Jobs there was Frank Smythson. A silversmith and ‘inventor of novelties’, his ingenious designs made the lives of worldly, sophisticated types a little easier at the turn of the 20th century. Travel bags that could transform into footstools, handbags that doubled as silk-lined muffs, and revolutionary portable ‘Panama’ diaries, these were the smart watches and wireless headphones of their day.

But in recent years, Smythson’s reputation has been as a less visionary, more charming, if a little dusty, heritage brand. Sure, you couldn’t dispute its luxury credentials (including royal warrants for the Queen) and it was still the place to go for a diary, but it wasn’t a brand you necessarily got excited about. But now Smythson is entering a fresh era, with a new creative director at the helm. Joining the brand last year from Burberry, where he was chief design officer, Luc Goidadin is re-energising Smythson by focusing on the innovation and levity on which the house was built in the first place. In looking back, he’s moving it forward. Way forward. Suddenly, Smythson is a brand to get excited about again.

Indeed, it was the ‘weird cabinet of curiosities’ from the Frank era that wooed Luc. ‘It’s that British sense of contrast and oppositions; this very elegant and traditional historic brand but at the same time you’ve got this sense of fun and irreverence,’ he says, sitting in the studio above the brand’s Sloane Street store. ‘That’s what we want to get back to as it feels so relevant today.’ Rather than be intimidated by the heft of the archive, Luc set about rummaging with joyful curiosity. ‘A brand with history is always interesting to someone who’s nosy. Going into someone’s mind is fun,’ he smiles. ‘We’re lucky that we have a history, but we’re more than that. We don’t want to create museum pieces, we want to create something that, if Frank Smythson were to start his company now, he’d be doing.’

Luc’s first Smythson collection – autumn/ winter ’19, which lands this month – was unveiled during February’s London Fashion Week. For the presentation, the brand took over Somerset House’s Portico Rooms to create a surreal mise en scène in which classical pillars and furniture appeared to be sinking into the floor. The collection echoes this sense of twisted tradition, borrowing codes from the archives then uprooting them with exaggerated proportions, surprising colours or design quirks.

So, oversized flaps are taken from equestrian bags, concertina detailing comes from a 1910 design and surprisingly modern graphics lifted from vintage stationery. Everything is designed to be as useful as it is luxurious. ‘Lord knows we need those little pick-me-ups,’ says Luc of their everyday appeal. ‘Luxury is not just a glossy image from afar, it’s something you live with.’ Still, we’re living in an interesting time for a brand like Smythson, which occupies an unapologetically analogue space in a distinctly digital world. When you can do almost anything on your phone, how does a brand that extols the virtues of stationery and paper diaries ensure it stays relevant? ‘We don’t want to have a battle between paper and digital – people have room for both – but there’s a real sense of returning to paper. There’s almost a disruption and exoticism around it, because it’s more authentic,’ he says. ‘It’s true luxury, isn’t it, when you open something that someone’s handwritten on beautiful paper? I think that’s where there’s a magic.’

Born in Geneva to a French father and English mother, the young Luc was an obsessive drawer. Yet when the time came, he decided to apply to law school. It was his ‘very enlightened’ parents who asked Luc, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to try art?’ Feeling more culturally British, he said he’d postpone his law degree if he got a place at Central St Martins – which he did, ‘luckily, as I think I’d have made a terrible lawyer’. After St Martins, Luc worked at Max Mara, before pitching up at Burberry, where he worked for 15 years under Christopher Bailey. ‘I really wanted something that was small, not necessarily with a massive history, but something that had authenticity and credibility,’ he explains of his latest move.

At Smythson, Luc has ‘plenty to dig my teeth into, but in the confines of something that felt much smaller, where you could really feel like you had an impact on everything. Because it’s small scale there’s not this hysteria around it. People who know it love it, but there’s not this frenzy. It’s niche and it’s beautiful.’ Certainly, there’s something beautiful about the brand ethos as Luc articulates it. ‘We’re in an industry that has to bring immense pleasure to people, whether through a piece of paper, a leather good, or a scarf. You can’t do that by being so serious. You’re there for when people want to have fun. Whether they’re going to treat themselves or someone else, it has to be a nice moment and you have to convey that happiness.’ Frank Smythson would be proud.

SHOP: The Best Pieces From Smythson To Buy Now

Gallery

Smythson Best Buys - Grazia

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Sliding Strap Zip Crossbody Bag, £695

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Panama Business Bag, £795

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Maxi Paper Edge Tote, £895

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Busy Bee Panama Notebook, £22

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Panama A4 Zip Writing Folder, £475

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Panama Mini Crossbody Bag, £270

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Burlington Small Backpack, £795

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2019/20 Mid-Year Panama Diary, £95

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Panama Gusseted Pouch, £250

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Panama Purse with Strap, £450

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