Interview with Designer Sir Paul Smith
BY NORA MANTHEY
Sir Paul Smith today is probably the most famous of British fashion designers. His career started in 1970 from a windowless room of only nine square metres in Nottingham, the very place from where he would also sell his men’s wear. Back then, as his hair was still reaching up to his shoulders, he donned colourful velvet suits and floral pattern shirts. Since the nineties, the charming Englishman has also occupied himself with women’s clothing. Eccentricity, avant-gardism and bright hues have always been key to his style. In 2000 Mr. Smith was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. And if you think that was a special occasion; Sir Paul – as he from then on ought to be addressed – married his childhood sweetheart Pauline on the same day!
Sir Paul your career began in modest, less pressured surroundings. How did you first come into contact with the fashion world?
Sir Paul Smith: After several years of hoping to be a professional cyclist I had a bad crash and then by chance met lots of art students in a local pub, near to my hometown of Nottingham. They were all creative people; painters, graphic designers, and the world that they were aspiring to was so interesting and I thought to myself, “I wonder if I could work in a creative world?” and luckily, I did!
What was it that sparked your international breakthrough?
S. P. S.: I’m not sure there was a break-through! I’ve always prided myself on my continuity and consistency so the growth of Paul Smith has been pretty gradual, no sudden break-through!
People all over the globe seem to want to completely immerse themselves in your boutiques. How do you set up an absolute ‘must-have’ feel there?
S. P. S.: I’m fortunate enough that Paul Smith is still an independent company and so I have the freedom to do things differently to everyone else. There’s no corporate roll-outs, my shops are all designed in-house by my own, very talented shop design team. As a result of this, my shops really stand out in this very homogenised world and hopefully people enjoy spending time in them!
What aesthetic aspects take precedence in the furnishing and design of your shops?
S. P. S.: Effort! I always like to have something in the shops that demonstrates effort. In my shop in Mayfair at No. 9 Albemarle for example, it’s the room covered entirely with individual dominoes.
You’re not only adored in Europe, but also in China and Japan. To what extent have you developed strategies to meet different market requirements?
S. P. S.: It’s not about strategies, it’s the opposite really. It’s about going to places and spending time there. Familiarising yourself with the local culture and not patronising people. I started visiting Japan in the early 80s, 30 years on I still visit at least twice a year, speak to my staff there, visit my shops and see everything that’s going on. I always say “think global, act local”.
What is it about British design that appeals to the Asian market?
S. P. S.: I don’t think it’s as simple as just liking ‘British chic’ anymore. Maybe it was once, but no longer – I think the market is very mature now and all over the world people recognise good craftsmanship and creativity. Hopefully that’s what they like about my designs.
Which items of clothing are essential for an all-round well-dressed European manager? What basics should not be omitted from the wardrobe in this part of the world?
S. P. S.: The Paul Smith ‘Suit To Travel In’.
How has e-commerce changed fashion and what does this mean for your brand?
S. P. S.: The speed with which everything is changing now is a little scary but we’re definitely embracing it instead of running away. We’re aware that fewer people shop in actual shops now, choosing to go online instead, but whether they experience Paul Smith in our shops or online we try to give them the best experience possible
What do you demand of your online presence and how to make ‘Paul Smith’ approachable even there?
S. P. S.: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult communicating our personality online. What makes Paul Smith different is the individuality and the eclectic mix of high culture and low culture, rough and smooth, communicating that on a computer screen is not easy but we do our best and we’re getting better and better at it.
Your life has to be anything but boring. How do you define creativity?
S. P. S.: I don’t really know what the word ‘boring’ means! I’m blessed with getting up every morning and enjoying life from the minute I wake up to the minute I go to sleep. Creativity is never forced for me, I find inspiration in everything that surrounds me whether it’s the colour of a book spine inspiring the colour of a little leather wallet or a garden in Chelsea Flower Show inspiring the print on a dress in my women’s catwalk collection.
How creative is a designer’s life? What is your working routine?
S. P. S.: Every single day is different. I might find myself looking at shop locations in Paris, having design meetings in my studio in London or doing press interviews in Tokyo. I’m constantly balancing the business and practical aspects with the more creative ones.
You’ve worked with many style icons, musicians and other designers. How do you decide whether someone is suitable for a cooperation?
S. P. S.: It’s always just a gut feeling. I’ve only ever worked with people that I’ve got along with and enjoyed the company of.
This year you’ll be celebrating your 70th birthday and one could say you’ve achieved everything from a career point of view. To what extent have you considered stepping back from the world of business?
S. P. S.: I’m not going anywhere!
At the moment the exhibition about your life and the trends you have set is running in Glasgow. How does it feel to be seen as an icon?
S. P. S.: I’m blessed with a sense of humour and the ability to keep my feet on the ground. My wife Pauline helps with the latter part too!
What advice would you give to anyone who has a vision?
S.P. S.: Absorb yourself in the world that you want to enter into. Whether that’s fashion, photography, whatever – try and find a way of surrounding yourself with it – even if that’s just helping out in a shop or as a runner in a photographic studio.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q1 2016. Picture credit © Paul Smith