As Britain’s greatest fashion export, Paul Smith is
remarkably modest. “Frankly,” he says, “I’m
not exceptional at design. I’m medium.” This comes from
the man whose collection is sold in thirty-five countries and has
over 200 shops in Japan alone. It’s true his clothes do not
have the flamboyance of John Galliano’s couture creations,
nor are they reminiscent of the bizarre eccentricity associated
with Alexander McQueen’s collections, but the Paul Smith
stripe is instantly recognisable and his much-coveted bespoke
suits are famous for their superb tailoring and idiosyncratic
detail. When you consider he works in an industry known for its excess
of pretentious luvvies and supercilious fashion junkies,
ego-maniacal designers and snobby editors, his down-to-earth
nature is surprising. He seems very relaxed and is happy to
answer my barrage of questions. I wonder if his friendly manner
is a result of his accidental entry into fashion. “I wanted
to be a professional racing cyclist, but truthfully I don’t
think I would ever have got there. After I crashed with a car I
discovered this pub where all the arty students in Nottingham
went. It changed my world.” Mixing with photographers,
graphic designers and painters inspired the young Paul Smith to
realise his creative potential. With the help of his girlfriend
Pauline, who is now his wife, and some savings, Paul Smith opened
a tiny shop in 1970 and officially entered the world of fashion.
Remarkably, only six years later he went on to show his first
Paul Smith menswear collection in Paris. Today there are twelve
different collections including a range of furniture. Despite running a huge empire, Paul Smith has clearly kept his
two feet firmly on the ground. “I have never taken fashion
too seriously. It’s important because the industry creates
jobs, pays mortgages and keeps families going.” Of course,
he is only too aware of the power of fashion, “Design
affects people in different ways: some feel sexy; some feel
slimmer; some handsome. A pilot without his uniform loses his
authority, you wouldn’t be too happy if he was dressed as a
punk. In the same way a man in army uniform looks and feels
tough. The way we dress reveals something about ourselves and can
help project an image.” And with his flair for colour and
sense of style, Paul Smith helps his customers to project that
image, whatever it may be. He stresses the importance of mixing a good business sense
with design. “It’s not good enough to be a great
designer, you have to have a head for business too. Why should a
designer know what VAT is; I thought it was a vodka and
tonic!” I think he’s winding me up, but he has a point.
“Fashion is only a small part of what I do. For me the more
important aspect is continuity in business. Keeping up the Paul
Smith quality year after year. It’s quite easy to become
famous, but it’s hard to maintain your fame and
reputation.” His world-wide success hasn’t made him
complacent. “I think I’ve been lucky with life. But I
do believe you get out what you put in: Japan was not luck; it
took eighty trips.” This man’s energy clearly has no
limits. “In fashion, it’s only about today and
tomorrow. Someone can overtake you in the fast lane if
you’re not careful. You have to keep moving to stay
ahead.” He stresses the importance of looking hard to create
something fresh, original and genuine but is keen to point out
that this rule applies to all businesses, not just fashion.
“Everything is so formulaic right now. Frankly, I don’t
think there’s much difference between the Pradas and the
Guccis and the Starbucks and the Coffee Republics. Everybody is
imitating everybody else.” Copying is apparently “the
disease” plaguing society. I ask for his solution to this modern malaise. His answer is
“individuality”. He firmly believes “you can find
inspiration in everything; if you can’t then you’re not
looking hard enough.” In fact this mantra is the title of
his autobiography, which he published last year. He’s been
inspired by cushions in Zambia, textures in Guatemala, the
colours of buildings in Lithuania and banners in China. Frequent
travel combined with photographs in books and magazines provides
an endless source of inspiration “but I could be inspired in
Birmingham if I had to be.” He admits that making money is
also an inspiration for his designs. “I like to make things
that are different, but that will sell and make money too. I try
to strike a balance between attention grabbing and classical
designs. It’s like life itself, you have to get the balance
right.” While the rest of the fashion pack are creating what he
disparaging refers to as “cookie-cutter fashion” Paul
Smith now does hand tailoring “so that every suit has its
own quirky imperfections”. And therein lies his formula for
success. His collections fuse a sense of tradition with mischief
and humour that somehow appeals to both the British as well as
the Japanese buyer. Over thirty years after opening his first (tiny) shop there,
the doyen of design is returning to his native Nottingham roots
with a Paul Smith boutique due to be opened this Autumn. Similar
in concept to his Notting Hill store, which is actually a house
divided into rooms showcasing accessories and antiques as well as
collections, the Nottingham shop “is a listed building,
built in 1736, I think. We’re opening the ground and first
floors.” Rumours abound of an underground grotto, but Paul
Smith says nothing to confirm or dispel the latest speculation.
Given that each shop is individual and unique – he even sold
Dyson vacuum cleaners in one store – grotto or not, the
Nottingham store won’t disappoint. I wonder how he sees the future of Paul Smith, the company. He
laughs. “My stepson was involved for twenty years and was in
line to takeover, but now he’s decided to be an actor. I
have a excellent management team all in place, the only weak spot
is me.” Or, perhaps more accurately, the lack of him. He has
no plans to take on a big designer, “I want someone with my
signature to carry on the Paul Smith name in the right direction.
Established names would want to promote their own visualisations;
it would no longer be Paul Smith. I have two great design
assistants, but if I’m not around, the ideas always take on
another form and become a completely different animal.” Truthfully, I can’t imagine this energetic man handing
the reins over too soon. “I know I should slow down and stop
working. I think I’ll ease out slowly. Maybe, I’ll work
a four-day week.”ARCHIVE: 6th week TT 2004