Rebecca May Johnson spends an afternoon in conversation with Paul Smith, tracing his path from a small time retailer to Britain’s most successful fashion designer, who pioneered the concept of classic menswear with a twist.
LONDON, United Kingdom — Paul Smith’s office is filled to the rafters with a rambling hodgepodge of pop-cultural objects from the last four decades. It hovers somewhere between a junk shop and a high school art room. The curators of “Hello, My Name is Paul Smith,” an exhibition which just opened at London’s Design Museum, have barely made a dent in the collection, from which they have extracted hundreds of items to help tell the story of Britain’s most successful fashion designer, whose company’s global turnover, last year, was £404 million (about $653 million).
Despite the size of the still-growing business (like-for-like sales were up 4.2 percent last year), the office culture here is not slick and corporate: conversations concerning the launch of a new Paul Smith app and the designer’s manic press schedule are mixed up with those about baking and Chinese food. While there’s no doubt of who is boss (Smith’s charisma benevolently dominates proceedings, as it does his brand) there is a strong sense of equality between Paul and his team, especially as we all pile into his Mini Cooper and go for a peek at the exhibition. Zipping across London at a fair gallop, we chat about everything from cycling to art to cooking, and Paul dispenses napkins for the blueberry muffin he insists this reporter eat en route. He even tucks the finished wrapper into the car door.
Smith, who still owns 60 percent of his business (the other 40 percent is owned by Japanese investors Itochi, who play a “silent” role), is not a man who demands a chauffeur or strives to maintain an aloof authority over his young, energetic staff. His warmth is remarkable. When we turn up at the exhibition, where finishing touches are still being made, he clambers across a display that’s half-complete to stow away my bag and coat, before chatting to the dozens of people manically working to finish the show — all of whom he’s on first-name terms with.
Visitors enter the exhibition via a small room of just 12 square feet which replicates the size of Paul’s first shop (launched in Nottingham, England, in 1970). It opens up into a vast chamber plastered with a Pinterest-like display of images that have informed Paul’s life and work over the past few decades. “The whole point is for aspiring young designers to go into the exhibition through this very narrow space which opens up — not in a pretentious way — but just to say that from very humble beginnings you can go places and be successful,” he said.
The likable, “can-do” culture of Smith’s brand has been shaped by his modest start in the industry. Unlike many young designers who start off intensely focused on their own creative vision and often struggle to make the transition to being more customer- and retail-oriented, Paul Smith started his career in a clothing warehouse, then running a small shop. “My first job was working in a warehouse where people like my dad could go and get a selection of clothes on sale, or return to offer to their customers. I was a gofer there, running errands and going to the post office. In hindsight it was a really practical experience: my boss said that if the rooms are not being used, switch the lights off, unwrap parcels and save the paper, and use the other side of invoices as notepaper — which I actually still do!”
His practical education continued when, after a spell in hospital to recover from injuries after a major bike accident, he met a girl in the pub and offered to help her manage a shop she aimed to open. “She didn’t really know how to do it and I said that I did. I was being a bit cheeky, but I had worked in a boutique before my accident. Through that, I discovered things like how to do a lease, see a solicitor and find a shop with an estate agent — and then set up the shop and decide things like where the [cash register] goes. It was quite big stuff. I became manager I suppose, though there were only two of us anyway! I did window dressing and great stuff like unlocking in the morning and locking up and night and talking to customers and working out how to make the shop look nice.”
It was the arrival into his life of Pauline, his wife-to-be, that set Paul on a path towards design. Six years older than Paul (who was then 21) and fresh from training in fashion design at the Royal College of Art, Pauline opened his eyes to London’s booming art and fashion scene. “Pauline was from London and she had been at RCA with Ossie Clark, David Hockney, Peter Blake, a young design duo called Foale and Tuffin, who were important at the time and used to sell to Woollen’s 21, which is now Harvey Nichols.” She gave him his first lessons in how to make clothes and encouraged him to enroll in a tailoring course and open his first shop.
“We were completely in love — we still are. We thought we’d have a little shop because it might be good fun and [would] only open on Friday and Saturday, so that we could keep the purity of it. And, then, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday I did anything that came along to [earn] money and [gain] experience. During the six years that we had this shop, I started to do loads of work for people like The Face, Arena, as a photographer as a stylist.”
Finally, in 1979, Paul opened his first proper London store, on Floral Street in Covent Garden. “My little shop was the only shop in Covent Garden — there were no others,” said Paul. “I used to stand there on a Saturday morning and shout: ‘Is there anybody out there?!’ It was like there was tumbleweed blowing down the street,” he laughed. “But slowly people got to know I was there, because it was the first minimalist shop in the whole of Europe. It was concrete floors, white walls — very, very pure – John Pawson loved it. I was into Corbusier, Bauhaus, and I hooked up with this sculptor from the Slade, Peter Wigglesworth, who designed it. This was pre-Comme [des Garçons], pre-Yohji [Yamamoto], but they did like it and Yohji and Rei [Kawakubo] visited the shop, which also attracted people like a young Deyen Sudjic [director of the Design Museum] and a young Norman Foster, Richard Rogers.”
It was here that Paul started to sell the clothes that have made his name and driven his commercial success. “They were very wearable, but they were different to what you could get. What I mean by that is they’d always got the usual ‘classic with a twist,’ so there’d be an Irish tweed, but it would be in lilacs or mauves or dusty pink. So, it would be different to what you could buy out there, but very wearable, and very acceptable. It was a real problem, and still is in a way, where in art schools and colleges, where [Jean Paul] Gaultier was the idol, or Vivienne [Westwood], because so many students think they should go down that route. It’s fantastic and lovely, but it’s very difficult to earn a living from clothes that are so unwearable. My clothes are always wearable, but have a point of view. Wearability has been connected to my commercial sensibility in a very natural way.”
Indeed, at the core of Paul’s continued relevance and commercial growth is a customer-centred business that sold approximately 45,000 suits in the last year. While Paul himself might be eccentric and surrounded by an office full of chaotic miscellany, his clothes are not so wacky. They are typified by what Smith himself was wearing during our meeting: a lean, flattering navy suit in fine wool, with a swirly silk lining that would look just as good on an 18-year-old as it did on this 66-year-old. That’s a wide demographic range.
The business owes a lot of its size to a large presence in Japan, where Smith now has 241 shops and where he has been since 1982, after a scout introduced him to an old-fashioned Osaka licensee. As he continues to do across his global network of stores, Paul personally oversaw the entire set up in Japan and rather than seeing the country as a simple opportunity to “cash in,” as many did in the booming 1980s, he “worked his butt off.”
He set up a Japanese office, owned and staffed by the label, in order to retain creative control over every last creative detail. “We control every shop, every bit of editorial, every advertising campaign, every in-shop event. I think a lot of people thought that if you just sent a video out there and some drawings, the licensee would take care of it. I remember once I had a call from someone out there who said: ‘How come you’ve done so well in Japan?!’ So I said, ‘How many times a year do you go?’ and he said ‘Per year? — I’ve only been twice, ever.’ By then, I’d already been about twenty times and I still go four times a year.”
While Paul can be relaxed and jovial, he is evidently also something of a control freak and, like the small-time retailer he once was, still prefers to do everything himself, or in-house, overseeing every creative decision the brand makes.
One of the keys to the success of Paul Smith’s global retail presence is the way every store retains the brand’s quirky, authentic personality. None of the stores — which are all designed in-house — are ever the same; in this respect, they are leagues ahead of many other brands which are now racing to inject personality and points of difference across homogenous global store networks.
“We design everything in house. We’ve got three architects and 12 designers downstairs, just on new projects all the time and then obviously graphic design, social media, marketing, press. I take the photographs for the campaigns and then work for a lot of magazines as well. All that is easy to control in a way, because it’s all in this building.”
Today, China and online are currently the fastest-growing segments of the business. But in the next year alone, new directly-operated stores are set to open in Hamburg and London’s Heathrow Aiport Terminal 2, with second and third stores debuting in Melbourne and New York, respectively. Franchises in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Hong Kong, Panama and Kuala Lumpur are also in the works.
Paul describes the early growth of his business as “very, very gentle” and unplanned. And while he may now have a team devoted to commercial growth, his brand’s formative years, especially his entry into Japan, were shaped by intuition and a serious work ethic.
“It’s very hard work and you have to have a head that can change hats every hour. I never think about anything to be honest, I just go with the flow. We’ve never had a big business meeting — my staff would probably argue that there is a plan, but it’s a lot more loose than that. We have a CEO, an MD, head of press, head of marketing, head of retail. There is a big structure in there. But it’s quite a flat structure, so everybody has quite a lot of responsibility.”
Paul becomes emotional as he walks me through the exhibition devoted to his life’s work (that he, nonetheless, emphatically resists calling a retrospective) and it is suddenly apparent to what extent the brand’s success, huge as it is, flows almost exclusively from the energies of one man.
It remains to be seen what Paul Smith the brand could ever be without the man himself.