David Smith is a successful Gold Coast-based designer who has built an international business specialising in his trademark bright and colourful shirts, David is pictured with his wife and business partner Taryn Smith.
David Smith is a successful Gold Coast-based designer who has built an international business specialising in his trademark bright and colourful shirts, David is pictured with his wife and business partner Taryn Smith. David Clark

The long and the shirt of success in menswear design

For someone who's cornered the market in loud shirts, David Smith is surprisingly understated.

The Queensland menswear designer has quietly built a thriving business in a game where bigger names have stumbled.

But you won't see his distinctive garb on the taut torsos of influencers or flooding social media feeds.

David is a bit ambivalent about the whole internet thing. He's found good old-fashioned human contact is serving him well.

"When I started out, I had a Kombi van and I drove with my shirts from Port Douglas to Portland, calling in to menswear shops in all the small towns and literally saying 'Hi, I'm David Smith. Would you like to buy some of my shirts?',” he says. "That was definitely the part of the business I enjoyed most.”

David knows the rag trade can be tough. He started straight from school in a suit manufacturing business in Bendigo, Victoria, in 1975.

It was in the glory days of Australian clothing manufacturing where local textile industries flourished under government tariffs. He went into factory management in a plant of 500 workers and qualified as a tailor after hours at night school.

After five years he moved to a high-volume factory in the manufacturing heartland of Geelong when he was headhunted by Target.

David helped institute standardised sizing and sat on an industry committee that drew up fabric flammability guidelines. It was also in the early days of importing clothing from overseas factories.

"Back then there were telexes, not faxes,” he says. "You'd send your instructions to the factory then wait 24 hours for a response.

"One time there was a polo shirt where the sample had the logo on the wrong side so we drew an arrow to the other side and said 'put logo here'. Ten thousand shirts came back with the logo on the wrong side with an arrow that said, 'put logo here'. They sold like crazy. People thought they were quirky.”

David came to the Gold Coast in 1987 for a change of scene and opened his own menswear store on Chevron Island.

"I couldn't buy what I liked so I did my own small range called David Smith because I couldn't think of another name and I was selling that to other retailers,” he says.

"I found I was enjoying the designing and wholesaling more than the retailing so I decided to go that way.”

It was around this time he met his wife and business partner Taryn (pictured with David) - "her eye for colour is wonderful,” he says. It was to spark a fruitful collaboration.

One of his early ranges included three paisley print shirts, in aqua, orange and lime. They flew off the racks. It seemed they'd struck an untapped market.

"I thought there's something in this so in the next range we included some more, getting more and more adventurous, and now we're doing around 150 styles a season,” he says.

Indeed, David Smith is best known for his bright print shirts, which he sells exclusively to small menswear retailers throughout Australia, New Zealand and the hungry US market.

"We took them to trade shows in the States and the shirts went over well,” he says. "We own a company there now too. The US still has its small town menswear stores that have been run by the same families for generations.”

Part of David's business ethos is to try to know his suppliers and wholesale customers personally. He and Taryn travel frequently and have cemented some solid business relationships along the way.

One is with the Memphis clothier famous for dressing Elvis Presley. As the story goes, a young Elvis was looking in the store window when the owner Bernard Lansky invited him in and showed him around.

Lansky Bros. dressed Elvis his whole life and is a loyal stockist of David Smith Australia shirts. Bernard's son Hal recently commissioned them to create exclusive Memphis shirts, designed to appeal to Elvis pilgrims who visit the store.

David says all his shirt designs usually have a story behind them. He and Taryn get their inspiration from nature, pictures, travel, wallpaper, magazines.

They believe in ethical manufacturing and David himself visits the overseas factories he uses. The Nepalese man who sews his shorts and trousers has been with him since the beginning.

"The Nepalese people are wonderful to work with,” he says. "We've seen his family grow up and his business has got bigger with ours.

"When the earthquake hit, they lost half the factory. They must have sewed out in the open to complete the orders.”

Loyalty is part of the David Smith creed. In fact, all his employees have been with him since the beginning. "They've been a huge asset for us,” David says.

Twelve months ago he ventured back into retail, opening his own shopfront on the Gold Coast.

This month, David is finally succumbing to customer demand and will begin selling online.

"I've resisted technology for a long time so this is something new for us,” he says.

He and Taryn still get a buzz when they see someone wearing their shirts. At the last two AFL grand finals Mike Brady, who sings the customary Up There Cazaly before the game, has worn David Smith shirts. The telecasts were beamed around the world.

"That's huge for David,” Taryn says. "He loves his AFL.”

David's also met a man who has collected 155 of his shirts as art pieces and tells a story of another who believes David Smith shirts saved his life.

"It was on a Sunday in the shop,” David says. "I never usually work Sundays but a man and his partner came in to buy some shirts.

"He was in trying them on when the woman told me her partner had prostate cancer and they were going to Prague to try a new treatment.”

When the man came out of the change rooms he told David he'd worn the shirts throughout his illness and instead of people telling him how sick he looked, they told him how good he was looking in his bright shirts.

"He said 'I think they've kept me going',” David says. "Then he said 'tell me, who is David Smith? Is he a real person?' I had to say, 'actually, it's me' and he just broke down in tears in my arms.”

Who needs social media when real life can deliver you an endorsement like that?

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