When he was 21 years old, a little more than 40 years ago, Paul Smith went to Paris for the first time with his wife, Pauline. They soaked up the Gitanes-jazz-and-coffee-bar flavor of the city, took in a couture show or two—if I'm hearing him right—and now, all this time later, his life-changing experience has resurfaced, like a buried memory, to change his approach to womenswear. It seems that the past master of English quirk got all French existential on us this season. Think basic black in a pencil skirt or a tautly tailored coat-dress; think beat in a striped mohair top with a swingy little skirt, or a black bouclé coat paired with cigarette-legged moiré jeans.

They were such incongruous associations for Smith that it was a relief to see a woman less Juliette Gréco, more naughty secretary (or some similar dolly bird from any Carry On movie) in a pinstriped blouse with a pinstriped pencil skirt, or a gray topcoat with a hint of petticoat poking through its kick pleat. But there were echoes of another ambassador for fashion existentialism, Miuccia Prada, in the retro florals, with the blouse matching the stockings and the skirt matching the shoes. A combination of green bouclé jacket and orange bouclé dress also had a distinct eau de Miuccia at her bad-taste best.

Backstage, Sir Paul was revved by the couture references—something new for him—but let's face it: A sack dress is just a sack, unless it's been blessed by Cristobal Balenciaga's magic touch.